FCC Will Vote to Define Texting as Information Service

The FCC plans to vote Dec. 12 on a declaratory ruling that wireless text messages (SMS and MMS) are information services, not telecom services, so that service providers can continue to protect their customers from spam and scams, said senior FCC officials.

Critics say that will also allow those providers to censor controversial speech. If texting were defined as a telecom (Title II) service, they would be prohibited from interfering with those communications per common carrier rules.

That FCC ruling, if approved by the full commission, would deny petitions to declare text messages a telecom service, instead defining them as information services. Texts had not previously been classified and the petitions gave the FCC a chance to weigh in and make that call.

The FCC has yet to classify interconnected VoIP--two-way internet-based phone service that connects to the public switched phone network--as an information service not subject to common carrier regs, or a telecommunications service that is.

The FCC says a text messaging service provides for storing and retrieving information, so it is an information service like email. The declaratory ruling also finds that text messaging, like wireless broadband service, is a commercial mobile service, not a private service, because it is not connected to the public-switched service.

Public Knowledge, which filed one of the petitions seeking a telecom definition from the FCC and got the opposite, saw it as a corporate handout.

“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," said SVP Harold Feld. "Chairman Pai proposes to grant the wireless industry’s request to classify text messages as Title I ‘information services,’ stripping away vital consumer protections. Worse, chairman Pai’s action would give carriers unlimited freedom to censor any speech they consider ‘controversial,’ as Verizon did in 2007 when it blocked NARAL and prompted the Public Knowledge 2007 Petition.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.