The FCC this week voted yes on a new proposal the agency says will help combat the scourge of robocalls, but critics and consumer groups say opens the door to wireless carriers being able to censor text message campaigns they don't like, or SMS services that may compete with their own offerings.
In a 3-1 party line vote, the FCC approved (pdf) redefining text messages as an "information service," therefore freeing such services from FCC oversight. In its announcement, the agency was quick to insist that this was done specifically to help carriers better fight robocalls and robotexts without worrying about running afoul of government rules:
"In today’s ruling, the FCC denies requests from mass-texting companies and other parties to classify text messaging services as “telecommunications services” subject to common carrier regulation under the Communications Act—a classification that would limit wireless providers’ efforts to combat spam and scam robotexts effectively. Instead, the FCC finds that two forms of wireless messaging services, SMS and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), are "information services" under the Communications Act. With this decision, the FCC empowers wireless providers to continue taking action to protect American consumers from unwanted text messages.
Critics, however, charge that this was another example of the FCC's motives not being made entirely clear to the public at large.
As we've noted previously, this particular debate over text message classification began some time back, after Verizon decided to ban a pro-choice group named NARAL Pro-Choice America from sending text messages to Verizon Wireless customers that had opted in to receiving them. Ever since then, consumer groups, worried that cellular carriers would use their power as gatekeepers to stifle certain voices, have been urging the FCC to declare text messages a “telecommunications service," making it illegal for carriers to ban such select SMS services.
This being the Ajit Pai FCC, the agency went the complete opposite direction in a move that largely benefits wireless carriers. The fight somewhat mirrors the net neutrality battle involving whether to classify ISPs themselves as "information services" under the telecom act (freeing them from significant oversight), or "telecommunications services"--keeping them locked into oversight by the FCC. Consumer groups like Public Knowledge were quick to issue statements pointing out this had everything to do with ensuring telecom giants are less accountable, and little to nothing to do with actually combating robocalls and robotexts:
"No one should mistake today’s action as an effort to help consumers limit spam and robotexts. There is a reason why carriers are applauding while more than 20 consumer protection advocates -- along with 10 Senators -- have cried foul. This decision does nothing to curb spam, and is not needed to curb spam. It is simply the latest example of Chairman Pai’s radical agenda that puts companies ahead of consumers. We urge members of Congress to overturn this decision and ensure that wireless carriers cannot block or censor personal text messages."
Those concerns were mirrored by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in her lone dissent:
Today the @FCC makes the same mess for text messages it did for #NetNeutrality last year.
That means your carrier now has the legal right to block your text messages and censor the very content of your messages themselves.
— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) December 12, 2018
Like net neutrality, gutting oversight of companies with decades of anti-competitive behavior under their belts (not to mention flimsy and dwindling organic free market pressure to behave) generally doesn't work out very well for end users or those looking to compete with these entrenched network operators. It's worth noting the ruling doesn't apply to the next-generation texting standard, RCS, though carriers like Verizon have already called for that to occur in future orders; something Ajit Pai is likely to approve as well.