PUBLIC-INTEREST GROUPS ACCUSED WIRELESS CARRIERS of conjuring up misleading excuses to avoid federal regulation of short-code text messaging, pointing to content restrictions in industry documents that they say underscore the need for anti-discriminatory safeguards.
“Wireless carriers admit that they engage in content-based discrimination,” Public Knowledge, Free Press, Consumer Federation of America and others told the Federal Communications Commission. “Therefore, the wireless carriers should bear the burden of demonstrating why refusing to grant short codes is necessary, just and reasonable.”
The controversy over whether the Federal Communications Commission should treat short codes as a regulated common carrier telecom service or as a largely unregulated information service is a subset of a broader debate over telecom carriers’ control of their networks.
“From the perspective of a consumer, text messaging provided via short codes is no different from ‘phone to phone’ text messaging that uses a longer code. There is no reason to distinguish the regulatory treatment of short-code text messaging and ‘phone to phone’ text messaging simply because of the length of the address used to send the message,” the public-interest groups stated. “Yet, the carriers’ documents confirm that wireless carriers often discriminate against would-be providers of text-messaging services via short codes based on the content of the information or the type of services they seek to offer.”
The groups highlighted limitations in Verizon Wireless’ and the Mobile Marketing Association’s content policies, though they say they do not object to all unacceptable uses of short codes in the MMA’s common short code primer. Industry association CTIA, which argues short-code texting is an information service, helped MMA develop best-practices guidelines for carriers to help them decide whether to accept proposed short-code marketing campaigns.
The short-code texting issue caught fire last year when NARAL Pro-Choice America became angered with Verizon Wireless after the carrier initially rejected its application for a short code it sought to blast wireless alerts to supporters. After the controversy gained national media attention, Verizon Wireless reversed course and gave the abortion-rights organization access to its network.
“Wireless carrier practices regarding SMS and short codes are designed to protect consumers, not restrict them,” CTIA told the FCC earlier this year.
Rebtel, a Voice over Internet Protocol firm that offers low-cost international calling on mobile phones, also has complained about being turned down by Verizon Wireless, Alltel Communications L.L.C. and T-Mobile USA Inc. in requests for short-code text messaging rights.
The public-interest organizations insist wireless providers are abusing their role as gate-keepers of short codes and thereby undermining an increasingly important means of basic communications for schools, public safety, voter registration and other entities. The groups scoff at the notion that short codes are simply a medium for marketing and billing, calling the view simplistic and misleading in view of “the increasingly vital role that text messaging via short codes plays in our society and democracy.” They said short codes are being used for the United Nation’s new ‘text messaging for peace’ campaign; Mobile Voter’s effort to encourage voter registration; Qtag’s new service enabling attendees at a sporting event or a concert to contact stadium authorities about a medical situation or unruly fans; a Boston police program to curb crime by texting tips to law enforcement; and donations to the Red Cross. Such applications of short codes, according to the public-interest entities, are not included in MMA’s list of acceptable uses.
In July, CTIA suggested to the FCC that regulating short-code text messaging could undercut carriers’ ability to protect subscribers from mobile spam, fraud and objectionable texts.