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Mobile carriers argue, “Problem Solved,” and “Trust Us”

April 15, 2008

You may recall that last month we filed comments in the FCC’s proceeding on our text messaging petition. We were joined by numerous other parties, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Rebtel, Congressmen, and over 200 concerned individuals. On the other side of the debate, a number of the carriers weighed in as well. The carriers’ main arguments? That the problem is solved, and that consumers are actually better off when the carriers get to decide who speaks and who doesn’t over text messages. Yesterday, we filed reply comments addressing these arguments, and making it clear to the FCC that the problem has not been solved, and that it is unacceptable to have mobile carriers act as editors passing judgment on the content of text messages.

The Problem of Carrier Discrimination is Real and Ongoing

The carriers’ first major argument is that everything is fine. After all, even though they blocked NARAL’s access to Verizon customers, after a front-page New York Times Article, they changed their minds. There are two problems with this.

First is that Rebtel is still blocked from talking to Verizon, Alltel, or T-Mobile customers. Rebtel is a company that offers cost-effective international calling through an opt-in text messaging service. But carriers don’t want their customers using a competitor’s service, and so they openly block Rebtel from reaching those customers. If you tried to call an AT&T customer service number from your Sprint phone, and were told that AT&T wasn’t allowed to talk to Sprint customers, would that be okay? We think it’s not okay in text messages either.

Second, not everyone can get a front page Times article written about them. If T-Mobile blocked you, do you have a friend at a major newspaper who will write an article about it? Could you get enough people to switch from T-Mobile to one of few other options they have to cause T-Mobile to change its mind? While public oversight is important, it is not enough to ensure that carriers don’t restrict free speech in important ways.

Customers Benefit from Nondiscrimination Rules, not Carrier Control Over Speech

The second argument is that consumers benefit when carriers act as censors. They claim that without their intervention, people will be inundated with unwanted messages, including everything from spam to porn to “controversial” opt-in alerts like NARAL’s. Once more, Public Knowledge disagrees with those claims.

First, the carriers’ own actions demonstrate that they want to restrict what users see far beyond “spam” or “porn.” While Verizon has now connected NARAL, they still maintain that they can block someone for any reason, including that same label as “controversial.” In fact, in Verizon’s comments, it worried that if the FCC protects text messaging, “third-party campaigns could be used for content that could be embarrassing … or counter to the brand or image of the mobile network…” Let’s explore this complaint through an example. The Communications Workers of America and the German Union Ver.di have started an informational text messaging campaign in support of their attempt to get collective bargaining rights for U.S. T-Mobile employees. Should T-Mobile be able to deny their customers access to this service because they find it “embarrassing”? If they can’t stop T-Mobile voice customers from picking up a phone and calling for information about this issue, why should they be allowed to stop their customers from texting?

Second, consumers will be most protected if mobile carriers are not allowed to discriminate in who they provide services to. On the one hand, users can be protected from unwanted text messages such as spam if they are given the control over what messages to receive. The carriers’ comments indicate that they can already block text messages at a customer’s request. Third parties are already offering software that allows parents to restrict what text messages reach their children. When text messages are blocked by the user or at the user’s request, there’s no problem. On the other hand, if text messaging is nondiscriminatory, consumers are also protected from the whims of the carrier. A carrier is not a newspaper, which is a source of information who is expected to make editorial decisions about what to publish. A carrier carries information, and as described above, has all of the wrong incentives when it comes to deciding what speech it wants its customers to hear. Only the user can make a value judgment about what speech is worthwhile to them.

Support the Petition

The carriers also made a number of other, more technical arguments which we’ve responded to. If you’re interested, please check out the reply comments themselves. You can also do a search on Docket 08-7 in the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System to see what everyone has been submitting. The growth of text messaging as a communications medium is far outpacing the growth of voice calling. The petition and comments of Public Knowledge et al. seek to ensure that text messages are protected from carrier discrimination in the same way that voice calls are. Please support this effort. To find out more, visit our text messaging petition page.