Once again, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finds itself in a spot where it doesn’t want to be – having to set down rules to make sure that big telecom companies don’t take advantage of consumers using newer technologies.
The Commission, or at least most of the commissioners, would probably prefer to be left alone with these pesky issues. Under their philosophy, the less the FCC has to do with things like the Internet and text messaging, the better.
Unfortunately, the real world has a habit of intruding on the construct of an agency that has tried to banish concepts like common carriage, with its accompanying consumer protections, from its regulatory portfolio. The question is whether the Commission will step up and speak for consumers, or whether it will allow the power of the telecom companies to go unchallenged.
The latest incident to reach the Commission’s attention is Verizon’s interference in text messaging. PK along with its friends from Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, EDUCAUSE, Free Press, Media Access Project and U.S. PIRG filed a petition with the Commission asking for a ruling that telephone companies shouldn’t be able to interfere with text messaging. You can read our petition here.
Our request comes partially as a result of Verizon’s refusal in September to give short codes to NARAL Pro Choice America so that the group’s members could receive text messages they signed up to receive. It is true that after disclosure of Verizon’s “policy” of turning down such organizations because they are too “controversial,” Verizon rapidly reversed course.
The problem is that one reversal can lead to another. Verizon may be magnanimous now with the heat on, but who knows what will happen in the next few months when the spotlight turns away?
As troubling, if not as public, is the refusal by Verizon and other companies to provision short codes to Rebtel, a Swedish company that provides mobile services around the world and wants short codes (abbreviated telephone numbers) to let its customers connect to its network.
Verizon Wireless said it is not obligated to provide services to companies that compete with it. Actually, it does, and that’s the point of our petition. In the wired world, telephone companies are obligated to sell access to their network to competitors. In fact, the FCC recently turned down a petition from Verizon for further deregulation in six markets because there wasn’t enough competition, and because deregulation of underlying telecom services would squeeze out the competitors that are there now.
As we said in our filing: “Mobile carriers currently can and do arbitrarily decide what customers to serve and which speech to allow on text messages, refusing to serve those that they find controversial or that compete with the mobile carriers’ services. This type of discrimination would be unthinkable and illegal in the world of voice communications, and it should be so in the world of text messaging as well.”
Now it’s up to the FCC. The first step will be to put the petition out for public comment. Eventually, we’d like the Commission to step up and realize that discrimination in telecommunications services is wrong, and that consumers deserve better.