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Text Messaging As A Political Tool: Who Has The Right To Decide What Gets Through?

Where do telecom carriers draw the line when it comes to blocking text messages that they deem controversial or inappropriate? Just take Verizon Wireless as an example of a carrier that's feeling a lot of heat after refusing to allow an abortion rights advocacy group to set up a text message alert system on its network.It all started when Verizon Wireless this week rejected a request by the National Abortion Rights Action League, or NARAL, to have its subscribers sign up for text messages from the organization by sending a message to a five-digit number called a short code. NARAL is known for engaging in political action to oppose restrictions on abortion.

It has been reported that the other leading carriers have accepted NARAL's request.

Some are calling what Verizon Wireless did an attack on basic American freedoms, but I see it as negligence. Only after receiving a letter from NARAL, the carrier decided to review its rules on allowing certain types of text messages. The company's executives found that they incorrectly interpreted a "dusty internal policy," thus leading them to a bad decision.

Verizon Wireless apologized for the decision not to allow text messaging on an important, though sensitive, public policy issue. The incident caused the carrier to fix its process, which I'm guessing means that they won't be quick to block similar requests in the future.

But that didn't stop advocacy groups from using the incident as an opportunity to promote net neutrality. Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, an organization that endorses media reform legislation, issued the following statement:

"The fundamental democratic principles of free speech, privacy and open communication are too important to be entrusted to these corporate gatekeepers. Whether it's liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, pro-choice or pro-gun, the phone companies can't get to pick and choose what messages get through. Congress needs to step in immediately to protect free speech and the free flow of information."

Consequently, Free Press created a petition on its Web site urging Congress to defend free speech on cell phones and the Internet.

It's a well-known fact that carriers act as the gatekeepers of their networks. However, a carrier's job is to deliver services to subscribers, and it's up to the subscribers to decide what kind of content they want to receive. I'm not suggesting flooding subscribers' cell phones with obscene or controversial text messages. I'm suggesting giving subscribers the right to choose. It can be as simple as: Would you like to receive alerts from (fill in the blank)? Choose yes or no.

Text messaging is certainly becoming a popular political tool, which is why experts argue that carriers have the legal right to decide which messages to send over their networks. What do you think about the issue?