Want to ruin text messaging? Get the government involved

The FCC is poised to defeat an effort to make it easier for spammers and other bad actors to bombard users through text messaging. Consumers should rejoice.

Thanks to its ease of use and low spam rates, text messaging has become a trusted form of communication for millions of Americans. In 2017, 1.77 trillion messages were exchanged in the U.S., or nearly 15 messages per day for every American.

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To preserve the integrity of wireless messaging, providers have enacted measures – including filtering algorithms, robotext blocking, and anti-spoofing procedures – to combat spam and other unwanted or malicious traffic. Wireless providers have deployed sophisticated tools like artificial intelligence to calibrate these spam filters in real-time to maximize their effectiveness. These efforts have helped make wireless messaging a nearly spam-free service. While the spam rate for email is about 53 percent, the analogous rate for text messages is just 2.8 percent.

Despite this track record of success, some have tried to change wireless messaging’s regulatory classification to make it easier for spam to reach users.

The new rules the FCC will vote on during its December meeting would legally define wireless text messaging as an "information service" under Title I of the Communications Act, allowing providers to continue protecting consumers from unwanted messages. In doing so, the FCC would reject a 2015 petition by Twilio, a mass-texting app, to instead classify text messaging as a "telecommunications service" under Title II. Treating text messaging as a telecommunications service, as opposed to an information service, would tie the hands of providers and expose consumers to a bombardment of spam and malicious messages.

To appreciate the flood of unwanted texts from which users are protected thanks to providers’ efforts, consider that voice service, which is regulated under Title II, is plagued by approximately 30 billion robocalls each year. The average American household receives between four and five robocalls every week.

Twilio and other mass-texting companies have argued that the filtering algorithms wireless providers use to detect spam go too far, preventing consumers from receiving messages they want. Twilio claims that prohibiting providers from blocking any text messages by classifying messaging services under Title II is needed to protect users.

But Twilio’s motives are clear. Twilio conducts mass messaging campaigns for clients and earns more revenue the more messages it sends. It stands to benefit if providers are prohibited from intercepting its commercial messages.

On the other hand, given the multitude of wireless providers and app-based messaging platforms available to users, it is clearly in the best interest of providers to ensure that messages that consumers want are delivered. Otherwise, they risk losing market share to competitors.

In the rare instances where anti-spam measures were found to block messages that were wanted, providers have responded quickly to adjust their approaches.

Classifying wireless messaging services under Title II would also be inconsistent with how other messaging products – includng Internet-based applications like Facebook Messenger, What’s App, and Slack – are regulated. Consumers view these services similarly, whether they’re sending traditional text messages through their wireless provider or relying on web-based apps. Regulating these services differently – classifying traditional text messaging under Title II and Internet-based apps under Title I – would interfere with the competitive, innovative, and consumer-driven messaging marketplace.

Consumers should celebrate the FCC’s rejection of burdensome and unnecessary regulations that would severely limit wireless providers’ ability to block unwanted messages from reaching end users.

Liam Sigaud works on economic policy and research for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org.