R U Blocking Txt Msgs?

Public advocates call it censorship; telcos call it forced marketing.

Public advocacy groups renewed their call April 14 for Federal Communications Commission action to prohibit wireless carriers from exerting undue influence on the provisioning and delivery of text messages addressed by short code. Verizon and AT&T responded by claiming the groups are misrepresenting the issue and new regulations are unwarranted.

Short codes, or SMS (short message service), are abbreviated telephone numbers that mobile-content advertisers lease through an industrywide system. They are most commonly used for game show voting, handset ring-tone sales and sports scores alerts.

In September, Verizon Wireless raised the profile of the issue when it decided to block short codes from NARAL Pro-Choice America. Blaming the decision to block the messages on an "incorrect interpretation" of company policy, the nation's second largest wireless carrier quickly reversed the decision and said the group was free to use its network.

In the aftermath of the flap, Public Knowledge and Free Press filed a petition with the FCC asking the agency to rule that short code messages be put in the same category as regular text messaging, which are protected from interference from carriers.

"The problem is real and current; carriers are discriminating against competitors and claiming the right to exert broad editorial control over text messages, especially those addressed to or from short codes," Public Knowledge attorney Jef Pearlman said at an April 14 teleconference.

Laura Scher, CEO of Credo Mobile, added, "The fact that Verizon believes it can reject or block politically motivated messages should leave us all very worried. How would you feel if Verizon decided to drop your phone calls the minute you started discussing a 'controversial' issue like reproductive freedom?"

AT&T Calls Short Code Akin to 900-Numbers

In comments filed with the FCC April 14, AT&T said the issue is not the ability of wireless customers to exchange SMS messages with others. "What is at issue is whether wireless carriers can be forced to enter into joint marketing arrangements with content providers through the activation of short code campaigns," AT&T said in the filing.

At a February FCC hearing in Boston, Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive vice president for public affairs, said SMS is not the same as regular text messaging any more than 900-numbers were the same as regular customer telephone calls.

"We and other wireless carriers have a legitimate interest in ensuring that short codes are assigned and used appropriately, in order to make sure that our customers are not bombarded with spam or other unwanted messages, and are not charged for messages without their prior consent," Tauke said.