Last month, when announcing a new program to modernize the nation’s 911 system, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski rightly noted that “consumers are using their phones less to make calls, and more for texting and sending pictures.” Today the FCC is holding Generation Mobile, a forum to discuss helping young people navigate the mobile world. The forum will focus especially on the “maneuvering marauder” of mobile phones equipped with text messaging.
It is a good thing that the FCC is recognizing the prevalence of text messaging, and its central role in consumers’ mobile lives. Text messaging is important, and the FCC should make sure that consumers are protected. Unfortunately, as far as the FCC’s authority is concerned, they might as well be investigating nautical traffic separation schemes in the approach to Buzzards Bay, MA or investigating which chemicals should be exempted under the Toxic Substances Control Act. That is because, like nautical traffic separation schemes and Toxic Substances Control Act exceptions, the FCC has steadfastly avoided asserting any authority over text messages.
Of course, unlike in the case of nautical traffic separation schemes and Toxic Substances Control Act exemptions, the FCC’s lack of interest in asserting authority over text messages does not make a lot of sense. After all, text messages are right in the FCC’s regulatory comfort zone. They are “communication by wire and radio” which is exactly the kind of thing that the FCC was created to oversee. In fact, they are a lot like phone calls, which the FCC has overseen for decades. We at Public Knowledge noticed this similarity back in 2007, when we (along with other public interest groups) asked the FCC to declare that they have authority over text messaging.
At the time, we were worried because Verizon was blocking the text messages that NARAL was sending its supporters. Since then, Sprint has threatened to block text messages from Catholic Relief Services and T-Mobile prevented WeedMaps.com from communicating with its customers. All the while, the FCC has refused to acknowledge that they are responsible for overseeing text messaging, or to step in an stop these abuses.
It is probably a good thing that the FCC is taking some time to consider how mobile technology is impacting young people. Hopefully, before they get too far, they take a moment to clarify why they are spending the day talking about text messaging and not nautical traffic separation. That way, if something does go wrong with text messaging, they will be in a position to do something about it.