Verizon reverses decision to block text messages

Grant Gross
PC World
Friday, September 28, 2007; 12:19 AM

Verizon Wireless Inc. has reversed a decision to block text messages on its network from abortion rights group Naral Pro-Choice America after an outcry from net neutrality advocates and others.

The controversy erupted Thursday, after a New York Timesstorysaid Verizon had rejected a request from Naral to send text messages to wireless customers who sign up for them. Verizon had said it has the right to block controversial or unsavory messages.

Several other political groups, including the Republican National Committee and Amnesty International, have used text message campaigns.

But Verizon backtracked on its position Thursday morning local time. "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 spokesman Jeffrey Nelson, said in a statement. "Upon learning about this situation, senior Verizon Wireless executives immediately reviewed the decision and determined it was an incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy."

The old policy was developed before text messaging protections such as spam filters adequately protected customers from unwanted messages, Verizon said.

Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group, said Verizon's decision still shows the need for the U.S. Congress to pass a net neutrality law, which would prohibit telecom carriers and broadband providers from blocking or slowing content from competitors or other groups.

"Instant replay is not the way to guarantee the rights of Americans to communicate freely over telecommunications networks," Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president, said in an e-mail. "You cannot have unfettered communications by having the telephone company review each decision whenever a controversial issue is raised. A text message like this one alerting Naral supporters to act quickly on a pending political issue is useless after hours of delay by the telephone company referees."

Cynthia Brumfield, president of tech consultancy Emerging Media Dynamics Inc., called the original Verizon action "unbelievable" in a post on her IP DemocracyblogThursday.

"Verizon is seriously [messed] up if it thinks Naral is promoting an 'agenda' but the Republican National Committee is not," Brumfield wrote. "And clearly Verizon believes that a woman's right to choose is somehow 'unsavory.'"

The issue goes beyond Verizon's apparent political leanings, Brumfield added. "What's truly disturbing is that Verizon is imposing its own political views on its wireless customers without their consent, something that the carrier could not do in the landline voice world," she wrote.

Naral on Thursday morning was encouraging visitors to its Web site to contact Verizon about its original decision. "What kind of company would deny its customers the ability to use their cell phones to participate in our democracy?" Naral said.

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