Consumer groups file text-message blocking complaint with FCC

Petition seeks to stop carriers from barring rivals or political orgs from sending messages

Eight consumer and public interest groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission today, saying that mobile network operators shouldn't be able to block text messages sent by political groups or by other vendors advertising rival services.

The petition (download PDF) was submitted to the FCC by groups such as Consumers Union, Public Knowledge, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Media Access Project. The filing follows a controversial turn of events in September, when Verizon Wireless first said that it would block text messages from the abortion rights group Naral Pro-Choice America to a list of subscribers on its network, then reversed the decision after it was reported in the media.

"Mobile carriers currently can and do arbitrarily decide what customers to serve and which speech to allow on text messages, refusing to serve those that they find controversial or that compete with the mobile carriers' services," the advocacy groups wrote in their petition. "This type of discrimination would be unthinkable and illegal in the world of voice communications, and it should be so in the world of text messaging as well."

The petition also claims that Verizon Wireless and other mobile carriers have blocked Stockholm-based Rebtel Inc. from advertising its cut-rate voice over IP calling service on their networks. Carriers "publicly admitted that they denied Rebtel's request because Rebtel's services competed with their own," the petitioning group wrote. It added that wireless vendors shouldn't be allowed to make such "discriminatory decisions."

But Jeffrey Nelson, a Verizon Wireless spokesman, said that if the FCC grants the petition, it would open up mobile phone networks to millions of pieces of text messaging spam. Verizon Wireless currently blocks between 100 million and 200 million unwanted text messages advertising pornography and other products per month, according to Nelson. Restricting the ability of carriers to block spam would quickly make text messaging services in the U.S. "unusable," he said.

"I don't think [the consumer groups] understand what would happen if they're successful," Nelson said. "If the folks who filed with the FCC get their way, it'd be a free-for-all."

Hugh McCartney, CEO of spam-filtering vendor Cloudmark Inc., agreed that a blanket prohibition against blocking text messages could cause major problems. In parts of southeastern Asia, mobile phone subscribers are already getting 20 or more spam text messages a day, he said.

Even regulations that prohibit carriers from blocking text messages sent by political or nonprofit groups could open up subscribers to more spam, McCartney warned. "Spammers are smart enough," he said. "They will put down nonprofits as being the providers."

Nelson also contended that mobile network operators shouldn't be obligated to transmit advertising messages from competitors. Although Verizon Wireless called the blocking of Naral's text-messaging campaign a mistake and an "isolated incident," the decision to deny Rebtel access to the company's mobile network was intentional, Nelson said.

He compared the decision on Rebtel's messages to a newspaper not accepting advertising from another newspaper. "We're not blocking anything," he said. "We're not allowing them to advertise."

The consumer groups maintained, though, that text-message blocking is evidence of a need for Net neutrality rules that would prohibit network operators from blocking or slowing down content from competitors.

"For many people, texting has replaced calling as a way of keeping in touch," Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "We need to have the FCC set the rules for the entire industry, and for a generation of people that depends on texting. There is no place for discrimination in text messaging."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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