Senators oppose FCC plan for ‘rollback of net neutrality’ for text messages

New Federal Communications Commission regulation of text messaging could be a threat to freedom of speech, several U.S. Senators argued in a letter to the commission chairman Ajit Pai on Friday.

Democratic Senators Edward Markey, Ron Wyden, Tammy Baldwin, Kirsten Gillibrand, Richard Blumenthal, Tina Smith, Benjamin L. Cardin, Elizabeth Warren, Bernard Sanders, and Dianne Feinstein expressed opposition to a measure that will be voted on Dec. 12.

Through it, the FCC will to re-classify text messages to the same category as high-speed internet, ruling they are information services and not telecommunications. This will allow wireless carriers to stop certain texts to consumers to prevent spam.

However, opponents say this is a threat to free speech and represents “the rollback of net neutrality as applied to text messages,” said Greg Cohn, chief executive officer and co-founder of phone-filter app Burner. The Senators in opposition to the ruling say reclassifying text messaging as an information service would allow telephone carriers to become gatekeepers, blocking any text messages they wish or charging organizations to pay additional fees to reach their audiences.

“In the 21st century, text messaging is as essential as telephone service, facilitating trillions of messages between senders and receivers each year,” they wrote. “These messages support commerce, public safety, and political activity, as well as everyday American life. Reasonable access to this vital means of communication should be preserved.”

The FCC is ruling on the matter after internet freedom group Public Knowledge advocated for the FCC to protect text communications by ruling them as telecommunication services after Verizon VZ allegedly prevented abortion-rights group NARAL from contacting supporters through automated text messages. The FCC ruling will do the opposite, ruling texts as information services instead.

Verizon has denied blocking NARAL text messages. In 2008, Verizon’s head of policy, Tom Tauke, said, “NARAL sought a short code from Verizon Wireless. That request was initially declined, based on a misapplication of our content policy. As soon as Verizon Wireless management learned that NARAL was denied a short code, that decision was reversed.”

The FCC did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The vote comes as the organization continues to fight spam calls and texts, which have exploded in recent years. Another proposal will dramatically increase fines against spammers from $1,500 per call to $10,000 and “make clear that wireless providers are authorized to take measures to stop unwanted text messaging through robotext-blocking, anti-spoofing measures, and other anti-spam features.”

The CTIA, the industry organization representing wireless companies, previously directed MarketWatch to a blog post on the issue. Scott Bergmann, senior vice president, regulatory affairs, added that the FCC’s proposal “will protect Americans from unlawful and unwanted messaging spam. Today, more than 50% of emails are spam, and no one wants their texts to look like their email inbox.”

“Americans rely on and trust text messaging,” Pai said in a statement on Nov. 20. “That’s why we need to act to prevent a deluge of spam texts and scam messages.”

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