FCC approves new text message rules, giving carriers more power

By Colin Lecher

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

On a party-line vote, the FCC today approved a controversial measure that gives mobile phone carriers more power over text messages.

The agency’s Republican leadership has pushed for the measure, which would classify text messaging as an information service. The move will give carriers leeway to stop spam texts without fear of breaking the law, Chairman Ajit Pai and his Republican colleagues have argued, and will keep robotexts from taking over phones the way robocalls have.

The classification, Republican commissioners at the agency have argued, will only preserve the status quo. Chairman Pai said ahead of the vote that “the FCC should not make it easier for spammers and scammers to bombard consumers with unwanted texts” and cited support for the move from a group of attorneys general.

But the move has received criticism from consumer advocates, as well as the agency’s lone Democratic commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel. While the agency’s rules previously left text messaging in a gray area, they’ve argued it should be more stringently regulated as a telecommunications service. By using the information service classification, the agency is giving carriers enormous power to block messages they find controversial.

“This decision does nothing to curb spam, and is not needed to curb spam,” says Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, which has pushed the agency to classify texts as a telecommunications service. “It is simply the latest example of Chairman Pai’s radical agenda that puts companies ahead of consumers.” Public Knowledge has pointed to controversial decisions, like Verizon’s move to block texts from an abortion rights group in 2007, as a reason for the stricter rules.

The reclassification only applies to SMS and MMS and not the next-generation texting standard, RCS. Because of a “lack of discussion of RCS and RTT in the record,” the FCC is making no judgment on its status today. That means we’ll probably have another debate about whether carriers can have the same leeway to treat the next-generation texting service. Given that RCS is technologically much closer to other texting apps like iMessage and WhatsApp, it seems likely that the carriers will have a strong argument that it should also be classified as an information service. In fact, Verizon has already asked for exactly that in a filing.

The FCC also voted today to create a database of phone numbers that have been reassigned, a move to prevent people acting in good faith from accidentally breaking the rules around robocalls when a consumer’s phone number changes.

Rosenworcel, in a statement before the text message vote, said “the FCC continues its quest to dismantle the regulatory framework that protects Americans,” and compared the move to last year’s decision to end net neutrality rules. The decision, she said, “means your carrier now has the legal right to block your text messages and censor the very content of your messages.”