Almost exactly a year ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to strip net neutrality protections from the internet and reclassify internet service providers as an “information service” rather than a “common carrier” or “telecommunications service.” This week the FCC voted to classify text messaging the same way.
This classification is not just a minor legal technicality. It can have real effects on our ability to use text messaging for political speech, political organizing, and supporting charities.
As The Verge reported, the FCC’s Republican-controlled leadership voted to classify text messaging as an information service under Title I of the Telecommunications Act rather than a common carrier or telecommunications service under Title II of the act. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai claimed the move will limit spam texts and robotexts.
Consumer advocates and the agency’s lone Democratic commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, say that using the information service classification will instead give carriers an enormous amount of legal leverage to block messages they find politically controversial.
“This decision does nothing to curb spam, and is not needed to curb spam,” Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, an organization that has urged the FCC to classify texts as a telecommunications service, told The Verge. “It is simply the latest example of Chairman Pai’s radical agenda that puts companies ahead of consumers.”
Earlier this month, Public Knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and 18 other groups signed a letter urging Pai to either classify SMS and short codes as a common carrier under Title II or to at least delay making a decision on any new designation until the potential effects of classifying text messaging as an information service can be further studied.
Prior to the FCC’s vote this week, short-messaging services (SMS) and short codes—the five- or six-digit numbers you often see attached to charity appeals that allow you to donate by text—were not classified under the traditional scheme of the Telecommunications Act. Classifying text messages as a common carrier under Title II instead of Title I would have required wireless service providers to contribute to the Universal Service Fund, which funds initiatives to, among other things, increase the availability and affordability of phone and Internet services for rural and low-income users.
Title II classification would also help prevent wireless companies from interfering with text messaging in a discriminatory manner. History shows that when wireless carriers exerted discretion over text messaging, it effectively amounted to censorship and hampered the ability of people and groups to organize. In 2007, Verizon blocked text messages from NARAL on the grounds of “controversy.” In 2010, T-Mobile was accused of blocking texts from a medical marijuana service. That same year, Sprint demanded Catholic Relief Services end a texting-based drive to raise money that was started as a response to the earthquake in Haiti.
Blocking political messages they disagree with may not be the only reason wireless service providers wanted text messaging to be classified as an information service. John Eggerton of Multichannel News, a website that focuses on news related to the cable and telecommunications industry, suggested that another reason services providers wanted the Title I designation is that it will make it “easier for them to compete with SnapChat and other lightly regulated instant messaging services.”
In the end, classifying text messages as an “information service”under Title I serves wireless companies’ interests but offers very few, if any, benefits to consumers. It means there will not be any oversight when service providers want to block text messages. It means there will be less money in the Universal Service Fund to provide for people who do not have access to the internet. It means that political activity over a critical messaging tool will be subject to a gatekeeper rather than open to all on reasonable and just terms. It means that wireless carriers can block text messages whenever they want.