FCC to consider making text messaging an information service, denying Twilio petition

cell phones
The spam rate for text messages is estimated at 2.8%, compared to a rate of over 50% for email. (Pixabay)

In a move that’s sure to make wireless operators happy, the FCC at its December meeting will consider a draft Declaratory Ruling on text messaging that would formally rule that text messaging services are information services, not telecommunications services.

That means carriers will be able to continue using robotext-blocking and antispoofing measures to protect consumers from unwanted text messages. Chairman Ajit Pai revealed the plan in a blog post highlighting items on the Dec. 12 meeting agenda.

“Today’s wireless messaging providers apply filtering to prevent large volumes of unwanted messages from ever reaching your phone,” Pai wrote. “However, there’s been an effort underway to put these successful consumer protections at risk. In 2015, a mass-texting company named Twilio petitioned the FCC, arguing that wireless messaging should be classified as a ‘telecommunications service.’ This may not seem like a big deal, but such a classification would dramatically curb the ability of wireless providers to use robotext-blocking, anti-spoofing, and other anti-spam features.”

That’s why he’s circulating a Declaratory Ruling that would instead classify wireless messaging as an “information service,” denying Twilio's petition (PDF). “Aside from being a more legally sound approach, this decision would keep the floodgates to a torrent of spam texts closed, remove regulatory uncertainty, and empower providers to continue finding innovative ways to protect consumers from unwanted text messages,” Pai said.

However, making this move also means the commission will be denying a 2007 petition from Public Knowledge. 

“It wouldn’t be the holiday season without Chairman Pai giving a great big gift basket to corporate special interests at the expense of American consumers,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, in a statement Tuesday. “Chairman Pai proposes to grant the wireless industry’s request to classify text messages as Title I ‘information services,’ stripping away vital consumer protections. Worse, Chairman Pai’s action would give carriers unlimited freedom to censor any speech they consider ‘controversial,’ as Verizon did in 2007 when it blocked NARAL and prompted the Public Knowledge 2007 Petition.”

In its petition, Public Knowledge alleged that in September of 2007, Verizon refused to issue a short code to NARAL ProChoice America, an activist group that was seeking to keep its supporters up-to-date via text messages like similar organizations had done in the past. (Verizon later said it was changing its policy.) Public Knowledge also alleged in its petition that several wireless carriers refused to provision text messaging services to companies like Rebtel that offered competitive VoIP phone call services.

RELATED: Verizon to launch new messaging service in February, Twilio executives say

The FCC said the Declaratory Ruling the commission considers in December would maintain and strengthen the legal foundation for the types of filtering operators use. The FCC also says that NENA, the 9-1-1 Association, has expressed concerns (PDF) about the possible impact of spam texting on consumer reliance on carrier-supported text messaging, which is used in text-to-9-1-1 services.