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Last week, Senator Barbara Boxer sent a letter to the CEOs of the nation's four nationwide wireless carriers. Responding to a petition started by law student Masaya Uchino, Senator Boxer asked the carriers to accelerate the process of delivering Japanese relief funds donated by text message. As both the petition and Senator Boxer's letter correctly point out, most SMS donations take approximately 90 days to actually make it from donor to recipient organization.
While it is commendable that both Senator Boxer and Mr. Uchino are urging carriers to accelerate the donation process in the case of Japan, we must also step back and ask why this dysfunctional system continues to exist at all.
Since 2007, Public Knowledge and other have been urging the FCC to examine text messaging policies. The current state of affairs allows carriers to block messages from political groups, competitors, relief organizations, and other businesses. It forces all financial transactions to flow through the carriers, and all charitable donations to flow through one designated agent that charges a 3.5% transaction fee on every donation (plus setup, monthly, and other per-transaction fees).
The current system also allows your carrier to determine which charities can receive your texted donations. As this article from Network World points out, customers of all four major carriers can donate to the American Red Cross, Convoy for Hope, GlobalGiving, and World ReliefCorp of National Association of Evangelicals. However, only Verizon customers can also donate to ADRA Relief, International Medical Corps, Mercy Corps, Salvation Army, Save the Children Federation, and World Vision.
And, of course, if you are a customer of a non-big four wireless carrier, you may not be able to donate at all. That is because wireless carriers currently do not recognize an obligation to connect short codes (those 5 and 6 digit numbers you use to text your donation) the same way they have to connect regular phone numbers.
Finally, there is the $10 donation cap. The charities working in Japan did not impose that cap on themselves. Instead, that cap is imposed on them by the carriers. Carriers have arbitrarily decided that no one can donate more than $10 via text messaging. As the case of American Idol's Idol Gives Back campaign vividly illustrates, this makes text message donations a strange outlier. After all, you can donate more than $10 to these organizations by phone, or mail, or online.
Senator Boxer and Mr. Uchino should be commended for taking action in light of the horrible humanitarian crisis in Japan. However, it should never have come to this. The FCC has an obligation to make sure that carriers do not get to dictate what the public can and cannot do via text messaging, just as carriers cannot dictate what the public can and cannot do via voice phone calls. That way, in the next crisis, Senator Boxer and Mr. Uchino can focus on bringing relief to victims and not on prodding carriers to do the right thing.