Verizon Ends Text-Message Ban

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

After facing criticism for blocking content on its network, Verizon Wireless yesterday reversed its decision to bar an abortion-rights group from sending text messages to Verizon subscribers.

The nation's second-largest wireless carrier said executives determined that the decision was an "incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy."

"The decision to not allow text messaging on an important, though sensitive, public policy issue was incorrect, and we have fixed the process that led to this isolated incident," Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said in a written statement.

Verizon Wireless had turned down a request from NARAL Pro-Choice America to use its network to allow people to receive text messages, the New York Times reported yesterday. Other wireless carriers accepted the text messages, which have become popular political tools for reaching voters.

Verizon Wireless said it initially rejected NARAL's request because of the potentially controversial content of the text messages. Nelson said the policy was developed before other protections, such as spam filters, blocked unwanted messages. It was "designed to ward against communications such as anonymous hate messaging and adult materials sent to children."

The question over Verizon Wireless's right to bar messages it deems controversial is the latest iteration of the battle over network neutrality -- a dispute over whether and how much Internet and wireless-network operators can control the content flowing to their subscribers.

The issue heated up this summer when AT&T, in broadcasting a Pearl Jam concert over the Internet, blocked lyrics critical of President Bush. AT&T later apologized for doing so, saying the lyrics were mistakenly silenced because they contained profanity.

Consumer advocates say discriminating against certain content is a violation of free speech. Some network operators say they should have the authority to prioritize content.

Federal Communications Commissioner Michael J. Copps said the text-message incident shows the need for legislation ensuring that such discrimination does not occur on Internet networks.

"If someone has the technological power and the commercial incentive, they're going to try doing this," he said. "You can expect adverse consequences for consumers in the absence of clear net-neutrality rules."

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said the incident raised troubling questions about the cellphone carriers' practices.

"I ask Verizon to decisively state that it will no longer discriminate against any legal content its customers request from any organization," Dingell said in a written statement.

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