Consumer Groups Say FCC Weakening Oversight Of Cell Carriers Under Pretense Of Battling Text Message Spam

from the ill-communication dept

Consumer groups say that the Ajit Pai FCC is once again being misleading as he continues his ongoing quest to eliminate most meaningful oversight of cell carriers and broadband providers.

Last week, the FCC announced several major initiatives the agency claimed were intended to help fight text message spam. One of them involves the creation of a reassigned number database, which would help marketers market more efficiently by ensuring that a target of marketing calls and text messages are receiving the messages they either opted in to, or opted out of. But another effort, only vaguely hinted at in the announcement, would further weaken the FCC’s consumer protection authority over wireless cell providers, already greatly eroded after the assault on net neutrality.

So some background: a little more than a decade ago, 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. Verizon justified the ban by declaring the text messages “controversial or unsavory”; a curious move for an industry that often cuddles up to marketing spammers and crammers when it’s profitable. 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.

Last week, the Ajit Pai FCC unsurprisingly rejected the request. An accompanying Ajit Pai blog post tries to claim that the FCC’s refusal of he request (lobbied for by cellular carriers) was somehow necessary to “protect successful consumer protections,” the sort of up is down and cold is hot rhetoric that has come to be one of the trademarks of Pai’s legacy:

“In 2015, a mass-texting company named Twilio petitioned the FCC, arguing that wireless messaging should be classified as a ?telecommunications service.? This may not seem like a big deal, but such a classification would dramatically curb the ability of wireless providers to use robotext-blocking, anti-spoofing, and other anti-spam features. So I?m circulating a Declaratory Ruling that would instead classify wireless messaging as an ?information service.? Aside from being a more legally sound approach, this decision would keep the floodgates to a torrent of spam texts closed, remove regulatory uncertainty, and empower providers to continue finding innovative ways to protect consumers from unwanted text messages.

But consumer groups were quick to point out that there’s nothing about the request that would prevent wireless cellular carriers from policing text message spam, and that Pai was (again) being misleading about what his latest policy order actually does:

“It wouldn?t be the holiday season without Chairman Pai giving a great big gift basket to corporate special interests at the expense of American consumers. Chairman Pai proposes to grant the wireless industry?s request to classify text messages as Title I ?information services,? stripping away vital consumer protections. Worse, Chairman Pai?s action would give carriers unlimited freedom to censor any speech they consider ?controversial,? as Verizon did in 2007 when it blocked NARAL and prompted the Public Knowledge 2007 Petition.”

By now Ajit Pai has developed a fairly impressive skill: take something that cellular carriers lobbied for, and justify it by insisting it’s essential for overall efficiency and effective consumer protection. Public Knowledge notes that happened again here:

“Chairman Pai supports this outrageous action by claiming the Title II ?telecommunications service? classification undermines spam filtering. As the FCC made clear in 2016 (over then-Commissioner Pai?s dissent), text messages and robocalls are both ?calls? under the anti-robocall statute, and this Title II designation does not prevent filtering or other technological means to block unwanted robocalls or spam texts. Indeed, Chairman Pai undermines his own argument by pointing out that email, which has always been an information service, has a 50 percent spam rate whereas text messaging, which the FCC treats as a ?phone call,? has a 2.5 percent spam rate.”

The net neutrality repeal dramatically weakened the FCC’s authority over ISPs by rolling back the classification of ISPs from “telecommunications providers” to “information services” under the telecom act. The goal of the giant telecom companies that lobbied for the rollback was fairly obvious: with a weakened FCC, most telecom oversight gets passed to an FTC that generally lacks the authority or resources to do much of anything about bad ISP behavior. As a result, ISPs will be clear to abuse a lack of competition in broadband to harm consumers and nickel-and-dime consumers — provided they’re somewhat subtle about it.

The same logic applies here. With text messages now declared “information services” free from FCC oversight, cellular carriers are free to not only block any SMS services they deem “controversial,” but it opens the door to “creative” restrictions that protect a cellular carriers’ own services. Fellow FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel went so far as to call the policy decision “bogus doublespeak,” but most media outlets appeared to buy into the Pai FCC’s claims that mindlessly doing whatever the biggest cellular companies want is somehow a massive boon to consumer protection.

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Companies: twilio, verizon

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Comments on “Consumer Groups Say FCC Weakening Oversight Of Cell Carriers Under Pretense Of Battling Text Message Spam”

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26 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

He starts right off with a lie:

a mass-texting company named Twilio

Twilio provides an API that allows developers to include text and voice services in their applications, including computer-driven menu systems as answering services. They themselves do not send mass texts though some of their users do. Twilio is nothing more than a service provider (and a very good one from a developer perspective, I’ve used them for several years now).

Basically, as I’ve come to see things after working with them for so long, anything that Twilio thinks is good for the public and industry is probably good for the public and industry. Too bad our FCC is run by an asshole who is easily bribed and works only for the telcos/ISPs rather than the public he is meant to serve.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am looking forward to the moment when you realize that your constant whining about minor slights and pleas for government control over the most important communication system on Earth has made you complicit in the the subjugation of free thought by less scrupulous politicians down the road. Can you not conceive of the possibility that your solution is orders of magnitude worse, as an inherently anti liberty device and long term threat to free society? You can’t, can you, because corporations are evil, right?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Please advise how the lack of meaningful regulatory oversight will improve things in this particular area.

Please provide citations and links to clarify what is being referenced by:
“…your constant whining about minor slights and pleas for government control over the most important communication system on Earth…”

Please clarify what is meant, specifically, by:
“the subjugation of free thought by less scrupulous politicians down the road.”

Thank you.

Chip says:

Re: Re:

I am very “Smart”. You can Tell that I am SMART because I sue fancy Words like “subjugation” and Scruplous.

All regulations are Bad! Like when Government regulate against “lead Paint”. Stop letting the Government control Paint! let the Free “market” Decide! If I say leaded “paint” is Delicious (and I do), then I should be “allowed” to eat Leaded Paint!

Every Nation eats the Paint chips it Sederves!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The kind of regulation many of us have been asking for is the same as what was applied to copper line tech many years ago. It worked out well for that medium and did nothing like what Pai and his clearly less-than-intelligent supporters claim.

Sometimes regulation is good. Your black and white view of it is sorely mistaken and frankly demonstrates a deficiency of intellect.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Many cute responses but one fairly responds as follows:

“Another of these comments? Would you care to elaborate on your point? Previous commentators have asserted similarly but always fail to articulate any actual substance. Which is unfortunate because if true, a discussion would be very enlightening.”

The topic is worthy of discussion, agreed, but if you were truly seeking enlightenment, you’d have looked beyond the words of “previous commentators” for articulation of the arguments both pro and con (I suspect you have).

At the risk of unduly narrowing a very complicated area, I’d like to at least respond to the notions, popular among pro-regulatory types, that a principle has no place in the discussion and, relatedly, that the burden of proof lies with con side. For a lot of reasons there ain’t time or space for here, the default position should be that the regulation may be clearly and unambiguously justified on principle and from a cost/benefit perspective, yet your comment suggests “actual substance” is needed, despite the inherently hypothetical nature of a proposal, as opposed to a policy currently in effect.

I think that in reality you will just disagree with any argument contrary to your specific position, which I get, but the fundamental premise of my argument is not unclear: that authority to regulate – that is, to coerce – is rarely specific in its delegation or granting, e.g. the FCC’s authority over “telecommunications” or even Congress’s Art. 1 sec. 8 powers over “interstate commerce”, and even more rarely narrow in its application over time, e.g. regulating vaping using authority to regulate “smoking” or the internet as a “utility.” From this, I’d like you, everyone, to have reached the conclusion that the expansion of authority has inherently negative potential, even if it is not categorically wrong, drawing upon all the myriad examples of government misuse of authority. Have you not, really?

If the authority to coerce is dangerous, oft abused, and liable to lead to unforeseen harms, the cost/benefit analysis should be titled towards the status quo from the start. To me, it is not enough to say “I got a boo boo from Corporation X”, and I think the isolated limiting of mass texts by a private organization falls into that category, to justify a broad expansion of government authority in such an arena so essential to free society.

I don’t believe you’re looking for “actual substance”, whatever that means, but nor do you require it. You can look to non-democratic countries for examples of government misuse of regulatory authority over the internet, or even examples of the US and other Western countries misusing the internet, but in the end I cannot substantiate a principle. Ultimately, that does not make it any less compelling.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I believe you’ve replied to the wrong comment. Regardless, I view regulation of the care and use of the infrastructure popularly known as the internet is vital to its long-term survival as a “public” communication medium. Leaving the corporations that run it today to run it as they see fit is only asking for trouble. There is far more “mission creep” in corporate behavior than there is in that of the government, though both are thoroughly guilty. At least with the government we have a distant vote whereas with megacorporations we have none whatsoever.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

You’ve hit the nail on the head I think. I essentially take the opposite view.

Corporations are accountable to dozens of stakeholders, including public interest groups, among the various types of investors/shareholders/directors with stakes, and are utterly powerless against duly-enacted, lawful regulation, the scope of which is expanding exponentially despite all the purported clout and influence of business groups (which, of course, are outspent by unions by large margins).

What’s more, government is a monopoly. There is no choosing between Verizon 4G or Google Fibre or DSL or Satellite; you’re stuck with the gov you got, at least until the next election. And when that election comes, the majority rules and generally doesn’t give two shits about private grievances.

The corporations that built and maintain the internet have huge impacts on our daily lives, granted, but they have never jailed anyone, assassinated anyone, or confiscated your property (generally speaking). Governments do this everyday, whether people like it or not.

Not only should you default to protect the freedom and interests of these corporations, economic or otherwise, over whatever interests (highly parochial interests usually) are purportedly served by regulation, you should be grateful that we have these corporations whose ultimate interest is in providing a service that’s better than the next guy’s. Granted, also, sometimes industry wants to just get rid of the other guy, but they do so by the very method you support: regulation of the industry as a utility!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

From this, I’d like you, everyone, to have reached the conclusion that the expansion of authority has inherently negative potential, even if it is not categorically wrong, drawing upon all the myriad examples of government misuse of authority. Have you not, really?

Uh, while can’t disagree with all you say… I see the problem as that you’re living in the 20th century when the whole culture and moral milieu was vastly different. In VERY brief:

1) The Rich, especially the merely inherited, were regarded as tyrants who needed their power to be limited by stiff taxation.

2) Working people always had the better moral argument.
1 has been relentlessly downplayed by media organs which The Rich control. They’ve bought respectability with their ill-gotten gains. Most here don’t even know that purpose of the income tax was originally to limit the 1%, NOT universal, but The Rich got control of that too and turned it against the poor. — The Rich start the class war and benefit from it. Immutable fact that’s been forgotten.
2 is of course axiomatic — and also forgotten.
But allowing unlimited accumulation of money / power leads inevitably to neo-feudalism: you can see it already.

And the moral milieu has deteriorated, visible right here in Techdirt advocating simply taking copyrighted works from those who made them. — SO, in short: regulating persons who lack morality is all that can be done to stop decline.

ECA (profile) says:

Another from the monkey factory..

“One of them involves the creation of a reassigned number database, which would help marketers market more efficiently by ensuring that a target of marketing calls and text messages are receiving the messages they either opted in to, or opted out of.”

And who runs and controls this IDEA of his? Really?

“Last week, the Ajit Pai FCC unsurprisingly rejected the request. An accompanying Ajit Pai blog post tries to claim that the FCC’s refusal of he request (lobbied for by cellular carriers) was somehow necessary to “protect successful consumer protections,” the sort of up is down and cold is hot rhetoric that has come to be one of the trademarks of Pai’s legacy:”

Counter what he said, FIRST… he reversed himself. He either got PAID allot or someone is stopping his drug habit..

““information service.” Aside from being a more legally sound approach, this decision would keep the floodgates to a torrent of spam texts closed, remove regulatory uncertainty, and empower providers to continue finding innovative ways to protect consumers from unwanted text messages.”

Who was around when Cell phones started getting popular?? When Fax was around, and Pagers were still here?? JFC, Fax spam, Txt Spam, All kinds of spam.. it Didnt matter if you had a land line…it was all over the place…
If you got away with 1 day of not getting ANY SPAM, you were lucky.. And the old robo calling from Modems, to find humans.. Why do you think we had these laws.
Then a corps that dont want money?? Even when Customers Wanted the Msgs?? That is restriction of info..AND against the law also..

Sorry, I cant continue.. It keeps countering itself, until someone either pays him off, or his drugs wear off.. and it hasnt stopped yet. Can someone please find that LAST brain cell and put it out of its misery??

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Pai killed net neutrality using a text message spam campaign using the names of dead people screaming the same message.

That’s…a bit garbled.

First of all, the identical comments on the FCC comment form were certainly not generated by SMS; they were generated using the Web.

Second…yeah, I’ve seen the "Pai generated those comments himself" argument over and over again, but I’ve yet to see a shred of evidence. He certainly helped cover up their source and muddy the water, but that’s not the same thing as generating them himself.

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