Thanks to a Federal Communications Commission vote last week, wireless carriers in the U.S. now have more control over peole's text messages. If that sounds ominous, that’s because it is—so much so that now’s the perfect time to ditch regular ol’ text messaging altogether.
Here’s the deal: The FCC’s decision means wireless carriers now have a greater ability to block text messages. The FCC is claiming a victory for consumers who have been bombarded with spam texts, but critics of the decision say it’s a threat to free speech. And given that there are already better alternatives to basic text messaging, like Signal, there’s little reason to not just take it all the way.
In more granular terms, the FCC has done to text messaging what it did to the internet when it overturned rules protecting net neutrality. The FCC’s latest decision reclassifies both SMS and MMS texts as “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act. Information services, however, aren’t subject to the same level of regulations as Title II-classified “telecommunication services” like phone calls, which is how they were classified before the December 12 decision. If you’re questioning the comparison to net neutrality, it’s literally the same issue: Broadband internet service was classified as Title II, allowing the FCC to enforce net neutrality rules. But the FCC voted to ditch these rules last year and once again classify broadband under Title I.
In its press release, the FCC frames its decision, which was passed 3-1 along party lines, as helping wireless providers protect consumers from annoying robotexts and spam messages. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also characterised the decision in these terms during the December 12 meeting ahead of the vote.
“The FCC shouldn’t make it easier for spammers and scammers to bombard consumers with unwanted texts,” Pai said, according to CNET. “And we shouldn’t allow unwanted messages to plague wireless messaging services in the same way that unwanted robocalls flood voice services.”
Stopping spam texts sounds hunky dory, but this is what it boils down to: SMS and MMS texting is now firmly in the black box of the telecom giants. Texts sent through your phone’s default texting app can be monitored, censored, and now blocked. Just on principle alone, it’s a good move to stop using this tainted system.
While the FCC is framing its decision as a win for consumers, the reality is, it opens the door to greater censorship. Back in 2007, Verizon allegedly blocked messages from abortion-rights group NARAL to its supporters. (Verizon denied any wrongdoing.) The recent FCC vote makes it easier for carriers to do this, or other actions like it, whether they take full advantage of their newfound power or not. Considering only about 3 per cent of texts are spam, according to the FCC, it seems a huge leap to say this decision is an outright win at the potential expense of free speech.
The danger that wireless carriers will abandon their newfound regulatory freedom was dire enough that a group of Democratic senators sent Pai a letter ahead of the vote in an attempt to sway the decision. They wrote that, by reclassifying text messaging as an information service, “telephone carriers would be free to block any text messages they wish. By leveraging their gatekeeper role, carriers could force businesses, advocacy organisations, first responders, doctors, and any others to pay for more expensive short code system or enterprise text messaging to reach their audience, rather than by traditional text messages. Carriers could also censor legal text messages if they believe that the content is controversial.”
Senator Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat one of the lawmakers leading the effort to stop the reclassification, reiterated this point in a statement condemning the FCC’s vote.
“The FCC has an obligation to promote competition and freedom of speech over our telecommunications networks,” Markey said. “With this action, the FCC [is] stifling free speech by giving telephone carriers the freedom to block any text message they wish, potentially harming competition and our democracy values.”
There’s just no way to survive modern life without texting, but you don’t need to use regular texting to do that. Encrypted messaging apps like Signal are far more secure and not beholden to same agendas as huge telecom carriers. And while iMessages is left unscathed, as it doesn’t use SMS or MMS formats, iOS’s default messaging app only uses the iMessage system when sending texts between Apple users.
Basically, if you were looking for a push to switch to Signal, this is it. It’s secure, it has a desktop app, and it works across iOS, Android, macOS, and Windows.
Before you shrug and say, “But I’m already on WhatsApp,” consider this: WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, which just had a terrible year marked by an unending barrage of data privacy scandals. And, WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum split ways with Facebook earlier this year following internal disputes over Facebook’s reported attempt to weaken encryption and use the app’s personal data. The app’s other co-founder Brian Acton also urged everyone to delete Facebook back in March. Signal doesn’t collect any sensitive data at all.
Are there downsides to Signal? Sure—the main hurdle is that you need to get everyone you text with to use it as well, which is admittedly a giant pain in the arse. Still, making the switch is worth it. And yes, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to avoid regular text messaging altogether given that someone somewhere will inevitably send you a text from time to time. But for all your main contacts, Signal is now clearly the better way to text.