Text Messaging FUD Busting (Part I)

Following the lead taken in Alex’s blog post yesterday, I’m going to address some FUD which is making the rounds about text messaging and spam. This weekend, the New York Times ran an article talking about cell phone spam. Spam – or rather, the threat of spam – is a key argument used by the carriers who oppose our petition asking the FCC to clarify that carriers may not discriminate in providing text messaging services. But don’t be fooled – the FUD thrown around in this article is irrelevant to the issues raised in the petition.

The key to putting this article in context is to recognize that it’s entirely about spam sent to cell phones via email – not from other phones, or from short code campaigns, which are what the petition deals with. Carriers offer gateways which allow Internet users to send an email which is then delivered to the customer’s phone via SMS. On one hand, this service is obviously a useful one. On the other hand, no one with an email address is unaware of the issues with spam over email. And as soon as your phone is open to getting messages through email, it’s open to getting email spam as well.

Again: this article is about your phone being an outlet for email spam, not text messaging spam. Why is spam a bigger problem when it comes from email than from another phone or from a short code campaign? First, email is pretty much free to send. Not so with text messages, which have cost both to send and receive. (See below for more on this.) Second, email is anonymous and unaccountable. An email to a cell phone can have a fake sender address, or no address at all, and it’s extremely difficult to find the real source. Text messages from phones and short code campaigns have a known source, so there is accountability for what is sent.

Oh, did we mention that it’s already illegal to send spam to a cell phone through email? That’s right, the FCC is already regulating text messages sent via an email gateway, as pointed out by Verizon in their Comments to the FCC (page 28). So no new rule from the FCC is going to alter carriers’ behavior toward email-to-phone spam. It’s just plain irrelevant.

As a side note, Europe deals with the issue of spam in part by using the “sender pays” rule. Since the sender pays for all text messages and the receiver pays for none, it just doesn’t make economic sense to send a large number of messages to people who don’t want them. The email gateways described in the Times article, however, are free as email to spammers while imposing a cost on users, making those gateways a prime target.

This won’t be the last time we deal with the FUD and misinformation that’s out there. It’s probably not even the last time it’ll be about text messaging spam. For more FUD-busting goodness, check out Harold’s post. And stay tuned!

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