The FCC says it’s giving more authority to wireless carriers to stop spam over text messages. But critics claim the commission may empower carriers to block legitimate content.
On Wednesday, the FCC voted 3-1 against an attempt to reclassify SMS and MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) messages as “telecommunication services,” which would’ve have subjected the messaging services to more regulations.
The FCC instead decided to classify SMS and MMS messaging as “information services,” so that wireless carriers can keep combatting spam and scam robotext messages without going through regulatory hurdles.
“The FCC shouldn’t make it easier for spammers and scammers to bombard consumers with unwanted texts,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement in supporting the move.
But not everyone believes today’s vote was about stopping spam. According to FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, it was actually about censorship.
“Let’s be honest, today’s FCC decision offers consumers no new ability to stop robotexts,” she said in a tweet. “It simply provides that carriers can block our text messages and censor the very content of the messages themselves.”
The request to reclassify SMS and MMS messages as telecommunication services came from a 2015 petition by Twilio, a cloud provider that helps companies send text messages. The petition was filed on complaints that wireless carriers were blocking text messages Twilio’s clients had been exchanging with their customers.
In 2007, free speech advocate Public Knowledge also petitioned the FCC over the risk of wireless carriers blocking legitimate text messages, but from activist groups. This occurred when Verizon was found blocking an attempt by an abortion rights group to send text message alerts to its supporters.
Reclassifying SMS and MMS messages as telecommunication services would have made it illegal for wireless carriers to filter out legitimate text messages. But Wednesday’s vote now opens the door for potential SMS text censorship, critics say.
“No one should mistake today’s action as an effort to help consumers limit spam and robotexts,” said Public Knowledge SVP Harold Feld in a statement. “This decision does nothing to curb spam, and is not needed to curb spam. It is simply the latest example of Chairman Pai’s radical agenda that puts companies ahead of consumers.”
Commissioner Rosenworcel said that prior FCC rulings have made it clear wireless carriers have the power to stop robotexts, without need for new regulatory authority. “But instead of using this common-sense approach, this agency does the opposite. We twist the law to reach the conclusion that you no longer have the final say on where your text messages go and what they say,” she said in a statement.
However, the FCC says today’s vote will have no impact on the legitimate text messages consumers send and receive. Carriers have “every incentive” to deliver the SMS text consumers want in order to retain customer loyalty, the commission said in its ruling.
“Consumers have a wealth of options for wireless messaging service,” it added. “If wireless providers do no ensure that messages consumer wants are delivered, they risk losing those customers to other wireless providers or to over-the top applications.”