from the this-could-easily-go-south dept
Though text messaging is starting to look somewhat archaic in the WhatsApp era, it’s still the most effective way for political campaigns and nonprofits to reach their target audience, in part because 90 percent of text messages are read within 3 minutes. But the collision between wanting to allow these organizations to market their candidates and campaigns — and protecting consumers from an ever-steady array of scammers, spoofers, and text messaging spammers — has proven to be a cumbersome dance of dysfunction.
The latest chapter in this saga: wireless carriers say they’re working on a new system that would give each organization looking to send text messages a shiny new trust score. So far wireless carriers aren’t saying how this trust score would be determined, but those who don’t rank highly enough on the scale won’t be able to send text messages en masse. The system is being contemplated after the 2020 election saw no shortage of text messaging spam that wireless subscribers found it difficult — if not impossible — to properly opt out of.
The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 is a dated piece of befuddling legislation that’s been interpreted to mean that you can’t send unsolicited text message spam en masse. But marketers and political campaigns have long wiggled around the restrictions via P2P text message efforts, which still let you send blanket text message campaigns — just somewhat individually via pre-scripted templates. These efforts were ramped up by the Sanders campaign, and were even more heavily embraced by the Trump campaign.
Wireless carriers want to make sure customers don’t get annoyed and leave, but they also want to ensure they won’t be held liable under the TCPA. At the same time, many political organizations are understandably a bit nervous about companies like AT&T determining who is or isn’t trustworthy in a way that probably won’t be transparent:
“The possible crackdown by AT&T and T-Mobile is causing an uproar among progressive organizers who say the system is ripe for abuse. Organizers say the scores will be based on an undisclosed formula without any real possibility for appeal, raising the prospect for algorithmic bias, and that one third-party vendor handling the trust scores has ties to a major donor to former President Donald Trump.”
Eighteen groups, including Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, and the NAACP signed a letter to Democratic lawmakers and the Biden administration asking them to intervene, but there’s been no response yet. And there’s likely not going to be a response because wireless carriers are stuck between a rock and a hard place here. Consumers are drowning in robocalls and text message spam, and these companies don’t want to be held liable for doing too little under the TCPA. At the same time, these organizations are probably right to be nervous about these scores being determined in a nontransparent way.
A new organization dubbed the “Campaign Registry” will be overseeing the new score system. It’s a subsidiary of a Milan-based company named Kaleyra. But nonprofit organizers say they’ve heard absolutely no information on how Campaign Registry will determine scores, despite the fact the system is set to go live just around three months from now:
?I would have extensive questions about what?s going to go into the trust scores,? Cleaver said. ?Who?s going to determine the algorithm? What?s going to go into it? What is the process going to be if you want to appeal it?? She said VoteAmerica is already a federally approved nonpartisan charity for tax purposes and that the carriers should work from that basis. ?The idea of the telecommunications companies assigning trust scores to registered nonprofits is laughable given their long history of exploiting and mistreating consumers,? she said.
When you look at AT&T’s misbehavior track record, you have to think she has a point. But given this is genuinely about reducing the burden on consumers in terms of text message spam, I tend to think this system isn’t the worst idea in the world. But that’s only if carriers and the Campaign Registry maintain transparency as to how the algorithm is determining trust, and US regulators are ready and willing to step in if the system isn’t transparent or is being abused. Given how much political power the companies building the system have, neither of those things are sure bets.