Consumer and public advocacy groups are urging the Federal Communications Commission to declare that text messages deserve the same nondiscriminatory treatment by telephone carriers as e-mail and voice messages.
In a petition filed with the FCC on Dec. 11, the groups claim: "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."
In September, Verizon Wireless was caught blocking text messages from the pro-abortion group NARAL Pro-Choice America. Blaming the initial decision to block the messages on an "incorrect interpretation" of company policy, the nation's second largest wireless carrier quickly reversed its decision.
"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 Dec. 11 petition states.
The petition asks the FCC to act immediately to declare that text messaging services, including those sent to and from short codes, are governed by the anti-discrimination provisions of the Communications Act. According to the petition, "The Commission should make it explicit that these discriminatory actions will not be tolerated in the future."
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, issued a statement Dec. 11 praising the petition.
Click here to read more about why Verizon reversed its policy of blocking text messages from NARAL Pro-Choice America.
"Without a doubt, the issue of nondiscrimination in communications is important to anyone who values free speech and citizen participation in our democracy," Keenan said. "This action by groups like Public Knowledge and Free Press underscores why it's necessary for Congress, the FCC and other entities that regulate communications systems to define clearly whether corporations should have a role in determining how the public accesses information in an ever-changing technological landscape."
Jeff Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said in an e-mail statement to eWEEK that short codes are a form of advertising and that the company reserves the "right to use our own first amendment discretion in deciding who gets to use that very special way of advertising to our subscribers, and not every company gets advertising access to our customers."
Nelson noted the Washington Post does not accept advertising from its competitor, the Wall Street Journal. Equally, Nelson noted, nor does Verizon Wireless accept ads from Sprint or T-Mobile.
"While the petition is well-intentioned, the groups don't understand that their position would lead to a violation of customer rights and could cause a complete breakdown of text messaging communications," Nelson said.
In addition to Public Knowledge and Free Press, other groups signing the petition include the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, EDUCAUSE, Media Access Project, New America Foundation and U.S. PIRG.
"For many people, texting has replaced calling as a way of keeping in touch," Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "The FCC should make certain that text messages, and the short codes used to dial them, are protected from interference from telephone companies."
Read more here about how text messages alerted St. John's University students about a gunman on campus.
Wendy Wigen, government relations officer for EDUCAUSE, which represents the college and university committee on tech issues, also stressed that text messaging has become a part of everyday life for college students.
"For many college students today, text messaging is the preferred way of communication, many times more popular than e-mail. They assume that their personal communications will not be blocked or otherwise discriminated against regardless of the technology they choose, be it cell phone, e-mail, Facebook or text messaging," Wigen said.
"The recent events concerning NARAL and Verizon challenge that assumption. The time has come for the FCC to clarify and standardize the rules across technological protocols."
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