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.