FCC Does Wireless Carriers Another Favor By Reclassifying Text Messages

from the who-needs-oversight dept

The FCC this week voted yes on a new proposal the agency says will help combat the scourge of robocalls, but critics and consumer groups say opens the door to wireless carriers being able to censor text message campaigns they don't like, or SMS services that may compete with their own offerings.

In a 3-1 party line vote, the FCC approved (pdf) redefining text messages as an "information service," therefore freeing such services from FCC oversight. In its announcement, the agency was quick to insist that this was done specifically to help carriers better fight robocalls and robotexts without worrying about running afoul of government rules:

"In today’s ruling, the FCC denies requests from mass-texting companies and other parties to classify text messaging services as “telecommunications services” subject to common carrier regulation under the Communications Act—a classification that would limit wireless providers’ efforts to combat spam and scam robotexts effectively. Instead, the FCC finds that two forms of wireless messaging services, SMS and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), are "information services" under the Communications Act. With this decision, the FCC empowers wireless providers to continue taking action to protect American consumers from unwanted text messages.

Critics, however, charge that this was another example of the FCC's motives not being made entirely clear to the public at large.

As we've noted previously, this particular debate over text message classification began some time back, after 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. 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.

This being the Ajit Pai FCC, the agency went the complete opposite direction in a move that largely benefits wireless carriers. The fight somewhat mirrors the net neutrality battle involving whether to classify ISPs themselves as "information services" under the telecom act (freeing them from significant oversight), or "telecommunications services"--keeping them locked into oversight by the FCC. Consumer groups like Public Knowledge were quick to issue statements pointing out this had everything to do with ensuring telecom giants are less accountable, and little to nothing to do with actually combating robocalls and robotexts:

"No one should mistake today’s action as an effort to help consumers limit spam and robotexts. There is a reason why carriers are applauding while more than 20 consumer protection advocates -- along with 10 Senators -- have cried foul. This decision does nothing to curb spam, and is not needed to curb spam. It is simply the latest example of Chairman Pai’s radical agenda that puts companies ahead of consumers. We urge members of Congress to overturn this decision and ensure that wireless carriers cannot block or censor personal text messages."

Those concerns were mirrored by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in her lone dissent:

Like net neutrality, gutting oversight of companies with decades of anti-competitive behavior under their belts (not to mention flimsy and dwindling organic free market pressure to behave) generally doesn't work out very well for end users or those looking to compete with these entrenched network operators. It's worth noting the ruling doesn't apply to the next-generation texting standard, RCS, though carriers like Verizon have already called for that to occur in future orders; something Ajit Pai is likely to approve as well.

Filed Under: blocking, censorship, fcc, information services, telecommunications services, text messages


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2018 @ 1:46pm

    I hope this means we can replace the FCC

    Since the FCC seems to have done everything in its power to remove any ability to actually do its job, we should put Pai in jail for the rest of his life and replace the agency with a brick. At least the brick won't shit all over the people when it messes up.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 14 Dec 2018 @ 2:54pm

      'Oh please don't throw me into that brier patch...'

      Minus the jail part(obviously) that would likely be entirely to Pai's liking actually. A completely powerless FCC would be great news for his past, current(unofficially) and future employers, as it would mean there would essentially be no-one to hold the telecom companies accountable beyond bought and paid for politicians.

      He's been doing everything he can to neuter the agency, killing it entirely would be a very desirable outcome to him.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2018 @ 8:06pm

        Re: 'Oh please don't throw me into that brier patch...'

        Not to mention, there's less for the FCC to do, so let's downsize. And hey, speech is turned into bits these days, so that, too is an information service...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2018 @ 1:49pm

    I think I actually agree with the FCC on this one. SMS was designed purely as a carrier information service. MMS and later are just tacked on top of that, and really compete with Internet-based messaging systems (which is where competitors should go). SMS is supposed to be messages passed through your carrier. The sooner everyone abandons it as a messaging service between customer devices, the better.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 14 Dec 2018 @ 1:57pm

      Re:

      Let me just make sure I understand.

      Your argument is that this is good...because it will make people want to stop using SMS?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Shufflepants, 14 Dec 2018 @ 2:33pm

        Re: Re:

        That's how I read it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2018 @ 3:14pm

        Re: Re:

        Pretty much. SMS is a mess no matter how it's classified, and is inherently insecure.

        Although I don't think this is good by itself; I just agree with a number of the FCC's arguments and with the unintended result of how they implemented things.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2018 @ 3:15pm

      Re:

      If this change does indeed make it harder for SMS spammers to do their thing then I'm all for it. If, on the other hand, it lets carriers filter out messages they don't like between private individuals then we have a serious problem.

      If history is any guide here the latter is far more likely than the former.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        norahc, 14 Dec 2018 @ 4:04pm

        Re: Re:

        The more likely scenario is that carriers would lock users into THEIR messaging app so they can sell the data they gather and lock out apps like Signal.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2018 @ 3:19pm

      Re:

      "SMS was designed purely as a carrier information service. MMS and later are just tacked on top of that,"

      Technically this is incorrect as SMS and MMS use different protocols.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2018 @ 2:11pm

    FCC - Fuck Consumers Commission

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Dec 2018 @ 10:09am

    This goes beyond just blocking texts.

    What if the carriers start blocking two factor authentication messages for websites they don't like? On some sites, no 2FA code = no access. They could block competitors or sites they just don't agree with.

    Also, what does this mean for the privacy of the messages? Will carriers be allowed to sell or use the contents of the messages? Since there is no oversight, how would we know or prove it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tom (profile), 16 Dec 2018 @ 6:47am

    As I read this, the FCC voted NOT to change something the mass spammers wanted changed. As it is now, the cell providers CAN block messages they believe are spam. If the service was reclassified, the cell providers would be legally prevented from blocking spam. I think the FCC got this one right.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 16 Dec 2018 @ 8:22am

      Re:

      How long before they are asked to block messages that are organizing a protest?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 16 Dec 2018 @ 1:37pm

      Re:

      Not sure where you got that, but it doesn't seem to jive with what I read, and more to the point how the ones objecting to it read it. The FCC voted to change the definition, not keep it the same, and the ones cheering it on are the ISP's, with ones objecting being consumer advocacy groups.

      As noted by the Public Knowledge post:

      '"No one should mistake today’s action as an effort to help consumers limit spam and robotexts. There is a reason why carriers are applauding while more than 20 consumer protection advocates -- along with 10 Senators -- have cried foul. This decision does nothing to curb spam, and is not needed to curb spam. It is simply the latest example of Chairman Pai’s radical agenda that puts companies ahead of consumers. We urge members of Congress to overturn this decision and ensure that wireless carriers cannot block or censor personal text messages."'

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        tom (profile), 16 Dec 2018 @ 6:39pm

        Re: Re:

        From the FCC news release and as quoted in TD posting:

        "In today’s ruling, the FCC denies requests from mass-texting companies and other parties to classify text messaging services as “telecommunications services” subject to common carrier regulation under the Communications Act—a classification that would limit wireless providers’ efforts to combat spam and scam robotexts effectively. Instead, the FCC finds that two forms of wireless messaging services, SMS and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), are "information services" under the Communications Act. With this decision, the FCC empowers wireless providers to continue taking action to protect American consumers from unwanted text messages. "

        Plain English reading seems to imply the FCC didn't take the action the mass marketers wanted them to take.

        Or were SMS and MMS not defined as anything prior to this apparent non action?

        I know that hate for the FCC is in vogue right now but I still think they got this one correct.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Dec 2018 @ 8:56pm

    The ruling had a positive result in California

    A California Public Utilities Commission employee had come up with a tax scheme to fund the low income phone subsistence off of text messaging. The change saved Calif from bureaucratic creep without legislative oversight.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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