Groups to Press FCC To Prohibit Blocking Of Text Messages

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A consortium of consumer groups is planning to urge federal regulators to clarify how much control cellphone companies can have over the messages and services delivered over their networks.

In a petition to be filed with the Federal Communications Commission today, these groups say the agency should prohibit wireless carriers from blocking text messages sent by any company, nonprofit group or political campaign. These groups -- including Public Knowledge, Free Press, Media Access Project, Consumers Union and the New America Foundation -- also say carriers should deliver all text messages to their customers, including those sent by competing phone services.

"Mobile carriers currently can and do arbitrarily decide what customers to serve and which speech to allow on text messages, refusing to serve those that they find controversial or that compete with the mobile carriers' services," the petition says. "This type of discrimination would be unthinkable and illegal in the world of voice communications, and it should be so in the world of text messaging as well."

It is the latest in a string of complaints and petitions filed with the FCC, pushing commissioners to take a stronger stance on the issue known as net neutrality, which refers to an effort to bar Internet and wireless providers like Verizon Wireless and AT&T from giving preferential treatment to content on their networks.

The five-member FCC has said it supports the concept of such a ban but has not formally enforced it. The agency has also said Internet providers have the right to manage their networks in order to serve their customers as long as they do not discriminate against certain content providers.

In September, the consumer groups protested Verizon Wireless's refusal to carry text messages from NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights group. The company quickly reversed its decision and granted the organization's application to send messages on its network.

In a separate incident, Rebtel, a firm that offers cheap international calls for cellphones, said several carriers, including Verizon Wireless and Alltel Wireless, rejected its request to send text messages on their networks. The carriers said they do not allow text messages from competitors.

Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said the company made a mistake with regard to the NARAL text-messaging campaign and fixed it within hours.

"But with Rebtel, we haven't made a mistake," he said. "We are not obliged to let services that want to compete with us to use our facilities to do so."

Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, said ensuring that text messages of all kinds reach consumers is essential now that such messages are increasingly used as business and political tools.

"Text messaging is becoming the phone call of the future, and it's still free speech," Sohn said yesterday in an interview. "This is corporate censorship of the most basic kind."

Similar criticisms were leveled at Comcast after the company admitted to slowing down Internet traffic from file-sharing sites such as BitTorrent when the network gets overloaded. Several consumer groups filed a complaint with the FCC about the incident, challenging commissioners to take action against such attempts to interfere with traffic. Vuze, a Palo Alto, Calif., company that uses BitTorrent to distribute video content, also filed a petition asking for rules to prevent telephone and cable companies from blocking or degrading legal Internet applications.

In response to the petition, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat, said these examples are proof that stronger rules are needed to keep companies from discriminating against certain content and services.

"The question we should all be asking is how much gate-keeping goes on that we never hear about," he said. "The FCC needs to get into this one."

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