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Posted
April 16, 2008

TISNF (That Is So Not Fair)

Wireless Carriers Fight for the Right to Censor Your Text Messages

The wireless commons is more vulnerable than you may think. Wireless carriers like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Alltel are arguing that they have the right to block any text messages whose content they consider unacceptable. Incredible, but true.

cc license by Jessica@flickr from Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jessflickr/76267117/

The issue heated up last year when Verizon Wireless blocked text messages from Naral Pro-Choice America to customers who had requested them. Verizon said that the messages were too “controversial” for transmission on their network. Other carriers like T-Mobile and Alltel block messages from competing companies, and claim the legal right to filter messages.

To make sure that free speech will apply to wireless text-messaging, Public Knowledge, Free Press and other public-interest advocates petitioned the FCC http://www.publicknowledge.org/issues/text-message-petition to declare the practices illegal. In response, the wireless industry made the following arguments (as summarized by Gigi Sohn, President of Public Knowledge in a \“recent blog post\”:http://www.publicknowledge.org/node/1512):

1. Wireless carriers are not like regular telephone companies which must carry all speech regardless of the source or content; instead they are more like broadcasters, and therefore should have editorial control over content;

2. Wireless carriers’ free speech rights to use their networks in ways they see fit trumps your free speech rights; and

3. A regulation prohibiting wireless companies from blocking text messages would prevent those companies from protecting users from spam, pornography and other bad text messages.

The industry responses are misleading. First, most people regard wireless carriers as the same as regular telephone companies—i.e., common carriers who do not control or censor the content that flows over their systems. In addition, the proposed rule would not prohibit carriers from blocking spam or pornography. It would just prohibit the blocking of messages that customers had asked to receive.

Public Knowledge warns that censorship of text messages by wireless carriers has \“far-reaching implications for your freedom of speech, competition in the wireless marketplace and even accessibility for the disabled.\” The FCC comment period for responses to the wireless industry just closed. Here’s hoping that the FCC makes the right decision and bans censorship of text messaging. For more, read a recent article in \“PC World.\”:http://www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/144537/groups_push_for_fcc_to_act_on_textmessage_blocking.html

Censorship on wireless networks in alarmingly similar to the practice of broadband providers’ blocking of peer-to-peer file sharing, much of which is entirely legitimate. Asserting its right to determine what content and applications can flow on \“its\” system—which happens to be an access ramp to the Internet—Comcast has secretly blocked the use of file-sharing applications.

This is precisely why Net Neutrality rules are so essential to the survival of the Internet. Who shall we entrust with protecting our online freedoms—a cable broadband company or Congress and the FCC? (Tim Karr of Free Press has more on this controversy at \“Huffington Post.)\”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/timothy-karr/comcast-wants-to-be-the-n_b_96902.html

Now that the political winds are blowing against cable companies and telcos, Comcast is proposing a \“bill of rights and responsibilities\” for Internet service providers and Internet users. It wants to position itself as the high-minded arbiter of Internet policy in an attempt to preempt FCC rules that would prohibit its practices.

The obvious lesson: Eternal vigilance is the only way that we will be able to preserve the value of an open Internet from the quasi-monopolies that are so eager to enclose it.