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Today marks the day that the two organizations that control the world of text messaging – CTIA-The Wireless Association and the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) – recognized they have a problem. The system they created to handle short codes (those five or six digit codes used from everything from American Idol voting to donating to your favorite charity) that has allowed the blocking of political speech, fundraising for Haitian earthquake relief, and opt-in messages from businesses is broken. The CTIA and MMA announced that they would form a “joint task force” to examine some of the problems.
It is a good thing that the industry recognizes that they have some problems that need to be addressed. However, it will be a missed opportunity unless they take an honest look at the real problems that dog the industry. After all, CTIA and MMA have been in charge of shortcodes the entire time. They need to look beyond their largest members for solutions.
It appears that in the CTIA and MMA's view the biggest problem with shortcodes is the excruciating process that anyone needs to go through in order to get a shortcode. It takes many weeks and many thousands of dollars, and compares poorly to obtaining similar things like URLs and 800 or 900 phone numbers.
The process of obtaining a short code is certainly a problem, but it is not necessarily the biggest problem. None of the high profile incidents involving short code blocking would have been very different with a streamlined shortcode acquisition process.
The real problem with shortcodes is that the rules are ambiguous, they are enforced unevenly, and when they are enforced it is almost impossible for the alleged violator to find out what they did wrong or how to remedy the problem.
The announcement of the task force does mention unifying guidelines across carrier networks (yes, today each carrier has its own set of idiosyncratic rules), and rewarding operators who comply with those guidelines. However, there is no mention of how those guidelines are actually developed, or in reforming the enforcement and dispute resolution processes.
These shortcomings highlight why it is important for the FCC to impose some oversight on the text messaging industry. From the standpoint of the large carriers, it is not that big of a deal if small businesses and organizations get cut off or find themselves accused of amorphous rule violations.
However, text messaging is a critical communications platform, just like phone calls. It should matter to the FCC. The FCC has a duty to protect the public's ability to freely communicate with text messaging.
That said, until the FCC acts I hope that this new task force looks closely at some of the real problems facing the industry, and works to resolve them in an open, transparent, and inclusive manner.