Public Knowledge Continues SMS Censorship Debate

Remember the brouhaha when Verizon wouldn’t let an abortion rights group have a short code, claiming that to do so would violate its ban on “highly controversial” and “unsavory” messages? The drama goes on, with digital rights group Public Knowledge continuing to be involved.

Public Knowledge has filed a statement with the Federal Communications Commission, asking it to declare that short codes fall under the common carrier category of the federal Communication Act–and thus, that cellular providers can’t discriminate when granting short codes. The letter is a follow-up to the group’s year-old text messaging petition, in which it asked the FCC to make sure carriers don’t use their ownership of phone infrastructure to block speech they dislike, or block services with which they compete.

“Carriers have gone so far as to make explicit their intent to ensure that the lawful speech that travels across these systems matches their ‘corporate values,’ is ‘in good taste,’ does not ‘disparage’ them or their affiliates, and is otherwise subject to their discretion,” Public Knowledge wrote.

Public Knowledge’s letter went on to say: “Text services, whether addressed by short code or long code, all communicate messages of the customers’ choosing. The provisioning of short codes for the purpose of offering text message delivery is integral to providing those services, and is therefore either part of the basic service itself or is adjunct to that basic service. The Commission should declare that text messaging services, including the provisioning of short codes, are… subject to all… provisions including nondiscrimination and accessibility.”

Sure, Verizon changed its position after intense scrutiny. But who’s to say it, or any other carrier, will later arbitrarily decide to withhold a short code from another party? (Indeed, one might say that Verizon will continue to discriminate if it carries out a proposed price hike on outgoing SMS messages.) Marketers shouldn’t be willing to take that chance, and should add their voices to Public Knowledge’s.