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The FCC’s plan to fight spam texts could give phone companies more power over messaging

The FCC’s plan to fight spam texts could give phone companies more power over messaging


Consumer advocacy group opposes the move

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The FCC unveiled two proposals today to battle the scourge of phone spam, although at least one of those moves is likely to be controversial.

In its announcement, the agency said it plans to formally classify text messaging as an information service, a legal distinction it said will be key to battling spam text messages. The classification, the agency said, will allow phone carriers to continue to use blocking technology to stop spam messages from reaching phones.

The FCC says the classification will help fight spam texts

But some consumer advocates have pushed for the FCC to instead classify messaging as a telecommunications service. Without that classification, groups like Public Knowledge have argued, phone companies will be able to discriminate against messages, deciding when and how to deliver texts in ways they say could harm consumers and free speech.

Public Knowledge has pointed to controversial blocking decisions, like Verizon’s 2007 move to block texts from an abortion rights group. Twilio, a company that makes software for texting services, has made a similar argument, while phone companies have argued the classification would hinder their ability to fight spam. The debate echoes the fight over net neutrality, when the FCC moved to reclassify the internet as an information service, ending net neutrality protections.

The messaging classification decision has been up in the air for years, but the FCC said today that phone carriers already apply filtering, and that its decision would “maintain and strengthen the legal foundation for this consumer-friendly filtering.”

“A great big gift basket to corporate special interests”

In a statement, Public Knowledge slammed the move. “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,” Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, said. “Chairman Pai proposes to grant the wireless industry’s request to classify text messages as Title I ‘information services,’ stripping away vital consumer protections.”

The FCC also announced that it would move to create a database of reassigned phone numbers. Such a database, the agency says, would give businesses an opportunity to check whether a number has a new owner before calling. Both proposals will come up for a vote at a December FCC meeting.

“Combatting robocalls is our top consumer protection priority, and these proposals are a significant step forward in that effort,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “Today, I am calling on the FCC to take additional measures to combat these calls and also to prevent a flood of spam robotexts from clogging Americans’ phones.”