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Opinion A new FCC proposal on spam texts empowers companies instead of consumers

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in February.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in February. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

THE FEDERAL Communications Commission kicked off the holiday season by handing Americans a gift: a tougher line not only on robocalls but also on robotexts. Some consumer groups, however, are looking this horse in the mouth — and they may be right.

The FCC announced in November that it plans formally to classify text messaging, currently of indeterminate regulatory status, in the same category as high-speed Internet. Proponents claim the change will help wireless carriers stop unwanted communications from flooding customers’ cellphones. But as critics point out, moving text messaging to a regulation-light realm could also allow companies arbitrarily to block even legitimate communications.

Almost everybody — except perhaps serial spammers — can agree that Americans should be sheltered from an influx of automatically dialed text messages they have no interest in receiving. The question is how to get there. The FCC says its proposed classification is the only route to appropriate protection; right now, the spam rate for texting is only 2.8 percent, and the agency argues that is because companies go to great lengths to shut down unsolicited messages. The FCC says classifying texting under the same category as phone calls instead, as advocates have petitioned, would deter carriers from those efforts.

But the FCC has made clear in previous rulings that carriers already have the ability to implement blocking technology that keeps out calls consumers do not want to receive — and that the same rules apply to texts. The FCC’s proposal would offer companies even greater freedom, allowing them to even censor content that is not proven spam at their whim rather than at the consumer’s will.

In the past, this freedom has led to abuse: Most notably, Verizon in 2007 briefly barred abortion-rights group Naral from contacting subscribers using a shortcode messaging program, citing its authority to block “controversial or unsavory” communications, even though those subscribers would have consented to receive the texts. Companies may also have economic incentives to deny senders access. Carriers signed on last year to voluntary principles that dictate what they should and should not block — but those are merely best practices, not policy.

The FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai has been touting its vigorous campaign against robocalls. There is no reason the agency cannot treat robotexts like calls and attack them in similar fashion: by requiring that carriers crack down on obvious spammers and pushing carriers to offer free and effective blocking technology that promotes user discretion. That is the way to empower consumers. The new proposal empowers companies instead.

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