Sprint under fire over Haitian text messaging campaign

An apparent paperwork snafu between Sprint Nextel and mobile messaging company Mobile Commons has reignited a policy battle over how text messaging campaigns are handled by the nation's wireless carriers.

The issue hinges on a text messaging campaign by Catholic Relief Services intended to raise money for Haitian relief in the wake of the devastating earthquake that hit the country in January. CRS worked with Mobile Commons to manage the campaign. However, Sprint asked Mobile Commons to fill out a form confirming that CRS is indeed a nonprofit agency--a standard request the carrier said it makes of companies working as middlemen between carriers and fundraising outfits, in order to address customers' inquires on the topic.

"It's something that we do with every mobile giving organization," Sprint spokeswoman Crystal Davis told FierceWireless, noting that Sprint has such agreements in place with mobile donations firms like mGive and Mobile Giving Foundation.

In a fiery press release issued yesterday, public interest groups Public Knowledge and Free Press claimed Sprint plans to shut down support for CRS' text messaging campaign, an action the organizations said "provided fresh evidence that the FCC needs to act to prevent telephone companies from having unlimited power to shut down text messaging campaigns they may not like for whatever reason."

"We have no plans to shut down that short code," Davis said. She said the carrier asked Mobile Commons to fill out the form within 60 days, but said Sprint will continue to support the program regardless of whether the firm does so.

"That is 100 percent incorrect," Anthony Risicato, CEO of Mobile Commons, told FierceWireless. Risicato said Mobile Commons filed the form with Sprint and then received a message back stating that Mobile Commons' CRS campaign had been rejected.

"This is not a paperwork fiasco," Risicato said, noting that the CRS campaign was in fact not a mobile giving effort--whereby message recipients could donate funds to the earthquake relief--but instead was simply a communications campaign between CRS and supporters who had agreed to receive messages from the organization. Risicato said CRS' messages urged supporters to call the organization to discuss donations and volunteering.

Risicato argued Sprint should have no role in communications between an entity like CRS and its supporters.

Representatives from Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA either declined to comment on the topic or did not respond to requests for comment. "AT&T approves and supports any campaign that is vetted and certified via the industry-approved guidelines by Mobile Giving Foundation or mGive, and that meets the Consumer Best Practices Guidelines issued by the Mobile Marketing Association," said an AT&T representative, without commenting specifically on the Mobile Commons issue.

The issue caught fire Wednesday following a New York Times story on the topic.

Public interest firms have been urging the FCC to look into the issue since 2007, when Verizon Wireless briefly rejected--and then subsequently approved--a text message program for Naral Pro-Choice America.

"Text messaging users, and businesses using short codes for innovative forms of outreach, cannot be left in the lurch of loopholes," Chris Riley, policy counsel for Free Press, said in a statement. "The FCC must be the cop on the beat, providing regulatory oversight to protect against gatekeeper abuse in these services."

An FCC spokesperson said the agency is reviewing the issue, according to the NYT, and had no further comment. That the issue is before the FCC is notable since the commission is in the midst of pushing for net neutrality guidelines for wireless and wireline networks, an effort intended to prevent telecom companies from modifying network access for individuals or entities. Major telecom players have largely argued against the imposition of net neutrality guidelines.

Wireless carriers have for years managed text messaging short codes, which allow businesses and others the chance to interact with wireless users via a five-digit code.

For more:
- see this NYT article

Related Articles:
Mobile donations to Haitian relief top $7M
Verizon Wireless reverses policy on text messages

Article updated March 29 to provide additional information.