Political Text Message Donation Mess is Wholly Preventable

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Word broke yesterday that carriers are dragging their feet on text-to-donate for political campaigns. The Obama and Romney campaigns and their supporters find themselves completely at the mercy of the wireless carriers.  If those carriers decide not to let people donate to political campaigns via text message there is not a lot that can be done about it. 

While the Obama and Romney campaigns' attempt to use text messaging is currently playing out at the FEC, this all comes back to the FCC.  After all, even if the campaigns win at the FEC, the carriers can still simply refuse to carry the campaigns.  And the fault for that is squarely on the FCC.

For almost five years, we here at Public Knowledge have been asking the FCC to recognize that text messages exist.  The FCC has steadfastly refused to do so.  This has allowed to wireless carriers to write whatever rules they want for text messaging, keeping consumer prices high and limiting the kinds of services available via text.

This lack of oversight manifests itself whenever a carrier shuts down a service just because they disagree with it, or in the fact that carriers keep 30 to 50 percent of every donation as a service fee (keep in mind that many Members of Congress recently called the 3% service fees that credit card companies charged businesses “out-of-control”). 

The state of text messaging is even stranger when you compare it to voice phone calls.  If a presidential campaign wants to set up a bunch of phone numbers so that people can donate, they call up the phone company and get some phone numbers.  In order to do the same thing with text messaging, the campaign has to submit a detailed proposal to all of the carriers, pay thousands in setup costs, and hope that each individual carrier decides to carry the campaign (the video below explains how this all works).  This is ridiculous.

The difference is because, as far as the FCC is concerned, text messaging does not really exist.  There is an FCC process for resolving disputes about phone calls, about radio interference, and even about how much you can be charged for access to a utility pole.  But if you were to bring a text message problem to the FCC they would just stare at you blankly.

The FCC can resolve this tomorrow by issuing an order.  It even has options – finding text messages to be an information service would free the Federal Trade Commission to look into industry practices.  Finding them to be a telecommunications service would give the public a way to resolve problems at the FCC.

Either way, it is well past time for the FCC to grant Public Knowledge’s petition and come to terms with the fact that text messages are real.  That way consumers, not carriers, get to decide how we use text messaging.

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