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Censorship Cellphones Communications The Courts

T-Mobile Facing Lawsuit Over Text Message Censorship 181

Posted by Soulskill
from the stirring-the-pot dept.
Tootech writes with this quote from Wired: "A mobile-marketing company claimed Friday it would go out of business unless a federal judge orders T-Mobile to stop blocking its text-messaging service, the first case testing whether wireless providers can block text messages they don't like. EZ Texting claims T-Mobile blocked the company from sending text messages for all of its clients after learning that legalmarijuanadispensary.com, an EZ Texting client, was using its service to send texts about legal medical marijuana dispensaries in California. 'T-Mobile subjectively did not approve of one of the thousands of lawful businesses and non-profits served by EZ Texting,' according to New York federal lawsuit."
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T-Mobile Facing Lawsuit Over Text Message Censorship

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    It's not really censorship. Besides, I never say anything that needs to be censored.
    • by shentino (1139071)

      Medical marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.

      A possible outcome is that the messages in question will be subpoena'ed and forwarded to the DEA.

      That said, T-Mobile, even if acting in the interests of not supporting illegal solicitation of drug business, is way out of line to be going after the marketing company over the actions of one of it's own clients.

      • obama has stated that the 'war on drugs' is now the lowest prio in law enforcement. things have, in this regard, changed a lot since bush left office.

        and as a calif. bay area resident, I can say that things have been much more relaxed the last few years, just in general, overall.

        this is not anything about a federal move; its a single company with a moral judgement and putting itself up as judge and jury on this contentious political topic.

        they should be fined so heavily as to send a clear message about 'se

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by rainmouse (1784278)

          >they should be fined so heavily as to send a clear message about 'selective filtering' due to political or religious (lets be honest, here) reasons.

          Not sure I agree with you. Reading between the lines I get "Marketing firm lays the censorship card when falling foul of spam filter".
          I hope they get laughed out of court, if spam filters become suable as illegal censorship we may be back on the road to endlessly reading about penis enlargement and 28 million unclaimed tax free dollars from a deposed Nigerian dictator or how we can even loose 50 pounds of fat an hour using this weird old tip (I'm guessing sharp scissors and a hoover).

          • by TheGratefulNet (143330) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @11:40AM (#33620210)

            but it wasn't spam.

            no one is against actual spam filtering. but this was request/response, and that's not spam.

            from TFA:

            EZ Texting offers a short code service, which works like this: A church could send its schedule to a cell phone user who texted "CHURCH" to 313131. Mobile phone users only receive text messages from EZ Texting's customers upon request. Each of its clients gets their own special word. A party supplier might get "PARTY."

            this isn't spam, its request/response.

            to block that is just plain wrong.

            • You are correct, this isn't spam, but they are not blocking it because the service is being used by spammers. They are blocking it because they feel the service is being used to procure drugs.

              According to the suit, T-Mobile began its blocking on Sept. 10 because it “did not approve” of EZ Texting doing business with a web site that provides information on the location of legal medical marijuana dispensaries in California.

      • by sjames (1099)

        The medical marijuana situation is a bit tricky. In the states where it is legal, police are in general instructed NOT to cooperate with the feds on such cases. If the DEA gets TOO heavy handed in those states, it may become a sort of de-facto actively hinder the feds in general order. The Feds do not want the states themselves to start challenging their threadbare claim to Constitutional authority under interstate commerce.

        There's a reason the DEA doesn't generally bust the dispensaries that are in well kn

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by metrometro (1092237)

      Censorship in the West is almost always private-vs-private.

      Often, the courts serve as weapon to enforce private interests (see: libel tourism, CDMA takedowns, Wikileaks vs Bank Julius Baer, etc). This is sometimes called Accidental Censorship, but at the end of the day someone always wants this to happen, and the threat to democratic discourse and political minorities is just as real.

      Here's a discussion of the concept:
      http://commons.globalintegrity.org/2009/11/accidental-censorship-how-policy.html [globalintegrity.org]

  • Cell companies can block whatever they want. (Unless the law has recently changed and I didn't know about it.)
    .

    • by Rich0 (548339) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @10:15AM (#33619700) Homepage

      That's wonderful news to me.

      That means that when my girlfriend calls me on my mobile phone to break up with me, I can sue the mobile phone company for emotional distress! After all, they didn't have to deliver the call and they didn't check to see that the girl was emotionally stable before whitelisting her phone number.

      The state of law for phone companies is that they just provide service, they aren't responsible for what goes over their lines as long as the bill is paid on time and they comply with court orders. Bridge operators aren't liable if somebody drives guns over the bridge contrary to state law, and phone companies aren't liable if somebody phones in a bomb threat.

      However, once a carrier starts picking and choosing who they let use their service, they are no longer a common carrier. FedEx isn't liable when a misc package blows up. Sears is liable if a Sears truck delivers a package that blows up - since Sears doesn't deliver for the public.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        That means that when my girlfriend calls me on my mobile phone to break up with me

        look, if you want to be believable here, you have to avoid outright lies.

        this is slashdot.

        come on.

    • by Golddess (1361003)
      They can't block 911.
  • Is this legal? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by kaptink (699820) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @09:43AM (#33619484) Homepage

    How is it legal for a carrier to block messages from a legitimate customer unless the messages were spam? If they are offensive or illegal then its up to the police, yes? Isn't there regulations to stop carriers from either spying on or interfering with communications?

    • by BitZtream (692029)

      How is it legal for a carrier to block messages from a legitimate customer unless the messages were spam?

      The fact that they can block spam stems from the fact that they can randomly pick what they want to let through and what they don't. Not the other way around.

      You can also randomly pick where you want to do business.

      What you don't get to do is tell someone else how to run their business.

      • by ultranova (717540)

        What you don't get to do is tell someone else how to run their business.

        Really? I though the US was found [wikipedia.org] on opposition to East Indian Company and its bought laws.

        It's truly a pity when the lessons of history are forgotten: a large enough business is indistinguishable from any other empire.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Except that blocking spam from their cell network is not the same as getting the government to tax items for you.

          • "I'm just saying it's the same ballpark."

            "Ain't no fucking ballpark. Look, maybe your method of government corruption differs from mine, but blocking spam and sticking your tongue in the public coffers ain't in the same ballpark--they ain't even in the same league--they ain't even the same fucking sport."

  • Q&A (Score:4, Interesting)

    by westlake (615356) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @09:51AM (#33619530)
    Explain to me why you file this lawsuit in a federal court in New York and not a state court in California - where a judge just might be a little less hostile to the trade in "medical" marijuana.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by hedwards (940851)
      CA doesn't have jurisdiction over either company. Either WA or NY would be the relevant place to file suit. Which makes it a bit surprising given that T-mobile is based in WA and the suit should have really gone through the district court in WA state.
    • by dcollins (135727)

      "Explain to me why you file this lawsuit in a federal court in New York and not a state court in California - where a judge just might be a little less hostile to the trade in 'medical' marijuana."

      Yeah, because no one in New York finds marijuana to be acceptable.

    • by cawpin (875453)
      Because then you don't run the risk of it getting thrown out on the basis of filing in the wrong jurisdiction. It was interstate communications so it would be easily covered under a federal court's jurisdiction.
  • by cob666 (656740) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @09:57AM (#33619576) Homepage
    I'm all for shutting down marketing firms that depend solely on text messages. In the US, we pay for each text message that we receive (or it counts towards a monthly allotment). Imagine if your ISP allowed only 100 emails per month, unsolicited email would not be tolerated.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by M4n (1472737)

      What?!?!?!?!?

      You pay to receive text messages? What the hell is that all about then?

      • by Nadaka (224565)

        greed. Yes, it costs me 5 cents to view a text message that I have received.

      • by Abstrackt (609015)

        What?!?!?!?!?

        You pay to receive text messages? What the hell is that all about then?

        Kind of explains why consumer debt is so high eh? ;)

        I had the same reaction when I tried to get a US phone and they told me I'd pay for messages received. The worst part was they thought I was the crazy one for not thinking it was normal.

      • by demonlapin (527802) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @10:44AM (#33619856) Homepage Journal
        Allow me to present...

        The US Mobile Market in a Nutshell:
        There are four nationwide networks, owned by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. (Various MVNOs and regional carriers as well, but they're not relevant to this discussion.)

        Sprint and Verizon use CDMA, but do not use a UICC or other SIM-equivalent. They will not activate each other's phones. If you want to be on their network, you have to buy their phone. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, but their 3G frequencies are different, so you can only get EDGE speeds on a phone not made for that network. If you want a modern phone, you have to buy one specifically for one carrier. Furthermore, only T-Mobile offers a discount if you bring your own phone. As a result, Americans are always under contract, because it makes no sense not to take the new phone every other year.

        As a result of the decision long ago to have mobile phones get numbers in the area code in which they are physically located, rather than a separate one for mobiles only, the person with a mobile phone pays for incoming and outgoing phone calls. (There's no easy way to know for certain that a given phone number is mobile vs landline, and nearly all Americans have had unmetered local calls for ages.) Minutes are minutes, and it doesn't matter who called whom. While this is a different decision from the European model, there is some reasonable logic - the benefit of being mobile accrues to the person with the mobile phone, so they should pay for it.

        All the systems include caller ID, so there's also an opportunity to reject the call and not be charged. Furthermore, all numbers in the country are considered the same - calling a landline, a mobile, a mobile on another network - all charged out of your minutes. VOIP providers follow this same model; you pay a per-minute fee for calls, but the fee is the same regardless of what kind of number you are calling. So the benefit is that American mobile service, while expensive and cumbersome due to the one-carrier-per-phone situation, works exactly as if you were at home when traveling. No roaming fees, even if you travel thousands of miles, as long as you're still in the US.

        Following the same logic, we pay to send and receive SMS. This is unconscionable, since you can't decline an SMS from an unfamiliar number, but the FCC is a creature of its regulatees, and so it does nothing. If you do find out someone does not have an unlimited SMS plan, you could easily empty their prepaid account or give them a thousands-of-dollars bill on a postpaid, just by sending them texts all day and night. The only solution is to get an unlimited plan or tell your carrier to reject all SMS.
        • by TheGratefulNet (143330) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @11:27AM (#33620094)

          I had tmobile on pre-paid. I got a few text spams. I called to complain it was going against my balance. they said there was nothing they could do! not block me on incoming or even disable the sms service.

          I watched my service drain. then I threw the phone away and never renewed with tmobile.

          I will never buy a tmobile phone again, either. that one simple thing turned me off that I now add them to my do-not-buy list. I think they were the only carrier at the time that refused to disable sms on prepaid, upon owner's request.

        • by Tim C (15259)

          there is some reasonable logic - the benefit of being mobile accrues to the person with the mobile phone, so they should pay for it.

          You could also argue that the benefit in being able to contact someone who is away from their landline accrues to the one placing the call, and so they should pay for it.

          • by mosb1000 (710161)

            That's why both are charged.

          • Yes, you could. The EU fell on one side of that decision, the US on the other. Both are reasonable, but since I was replying to a non-American, I figured that he already understood the logic behind his way.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Lehk228 (705449)
          my net10 phone (and i assume all tracphone systems) only charged sms when you read them
        • by rrossman2 (844318)
          "There's no easy way to know for certain that a given phone number is mobile vs landline"

          Bull crap. Send a text to your house number. I know FOR CERTAIN Verizon Wireless will text you back in about 1 second saying the number is a land line number, and to confirm you want them to call the number and read your text to whoever answers.

          If it's sooo hard to tell, this service wouldn't be responding in such a quick fashion. I guess the only case where it *MAY* be difficult is if someone ported a land line
          • by rrossman2 (844318)
            I just want to add, I just send a text to my home number from my unlocked AT&T phone via my Immix wireless service (which is currently on the T-Mobile tower). Within about 15 seconds I got a text reply saying:

            "Your message was successfully delivered to phone number 814-692-####. Thanks for using Text to Landline from Immix Wireless."
    • by spikenerd (642677)

      In the US, we pay for each text message that we receive... Imagine if your ISP allowed only 100 emails per month, unsolicited email would not be tolerated.

      Why do you pay for this "service"? By your own argument, wouldn't the world be a better place if we let the spammers make people pay for useless text messages? What a great way to tell people, "Hey! you're being exploited by a business that preys upon the ignorant."

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by demonlapin (527802)
        You don't have a choice. I'm not aware of any US carrier at all - certainly not the major ones - that offers free incoming texts on anything other than an unlimited-text plan.
  • by metrix007 (200091) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @09:57AM (#33619584)

    Surely this action would remove their common carrier status? Now that they have demonstrated they have the capability to censor content, they can assume responsibility for other content that they allow through?

    Also, for those saying it is not censorship because it is not the government....no. Just no.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Xuranova (160813)

      capability to censor content? That might be the end result but they have the companies phone number who is sending this. Telecoms have been able to block phone numbers for quite a while now.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by metrix007 (200091)

        What is the possible relevance of your point?

        This is blocking based on message content, not just blacklisting a number.

    • by hedwards (940851)
      Not likely, the texts are advertising activities which are illegal under federal law, I doubt very much that they'll get into any trouble for refusing to pass on adverts for illegal activities. Especially when it can be filtered without human intervention.
  • Marijuana may be "legal" in California and here in Massachusetts, as far as the state and commonwealth are concerned, but try dealing near a DEA agent even in those states.

    It's against Federal law, and as soon as any of those text messages cross state lines, and T-Mobile is aware of it, they can get screwed for it. I don't think it's a matter of the provider seeking them out, but probablu in response to reports and dealing with the matter after being made aware of the issue so they are not accessories to a

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by metrix007 (200091)

      as soon as any of those text messages cross state lines, and T-Mobile is aware of it, they can get screwed for it.

      They can now. They couldn't before, as they were just a carrier.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You do realize that these are just messages about legally available marijuna, not the actual substance itself, traveling through their switches and communications gear don't you?

      Should common carriers be allowed to examine your text messages and decide what to block? Your email? Your voice communications?

      Should we all be prohibited from talking or texting about things or activities which are illegal in some places but not necessarily where we live?

    • by Ksevio (865461)
      Marijuana isn't legal in Massachusetts. Possessing small quantities is not a criminal offense any more, but it's still illegal.
  • by Guppy06 (410832) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @11:22AM (#33620068)

    Run by Shane Neman, who also runs "Club Texting," both companies are known for sending out unsolicited text spam, which is illegal under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (because the recipient has to pay to receive the message). When not avoiding disclosure of legal liabilities to their customers, they're quietly lobbying the FCC to get the same odious protections Congress gave junk faxers.

    http://www.commlawblog.com/tags/club-texting/ [commlawblog.com]

    EZ Texting makes sure to send their messages from obfuscated domains [godaddy.com] with "private" registration information [godaddy.com] (spammers apparently don't like being spammed, or being served lawsuits).

    I doubt this is less about the content of the advertising and more about T-Mobile responding to customer complaints and attempting to cut off an unlawful advertiser who's trespassing on their networks. A spammer is a spammer is a spammer.

    • by JDS13 (1236704) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @12:11PM (#33620398)

      In that case, T-Mobile should have notified EZ Texting that the shutdown was because of complaints about unsolicited texts, which are a violation of their terms of service and of Federal law. I'm sure there have been complaints about EZ Texting - I'm a T-Mobile customer and have called them to complain about unsolicited texts. I've also filed 1088's with the FCC.

      Blocking a spammer wouldn't create this lawsuit or publicity.

  • by Joe The Dragon (967727) on Saturday September 18, 2010 @11:25AM (#33620082)

    why can't there be free incoming and 1-800 like numbers that are free to to text (they pay the costs) and 1-900 like ones where you don't pay the base rate + there own rate (you just pay there rate)

    • by rrossman2 (844318)
      Well, back when I had AT&T (way back) it was free to receive texts, and something like 10 cents to send. There weren't any Texting plans at the time. Sprint also use to (I think they brought it back recently) have a free incoming call plan as well
  • Easy Fix (Score:2, Insightful)

    by bobjr94 (1120555)
    Let customers opt in/out of spam text blocking.
    • by josepha48 (13953)
      they kind of already do, it's a paid service though. t-mobile allows you to block text messages but it is about a $5 a month service. I don't think I should have to pay to NOT receive spam texts. I text with friends not all that other crap that goes on and if t-mobile blocks those sites from spaming my limited # of text messages I'm ok with that. As long as they do not block my friends from txtn me
  • In 2007 Verizon blocked text messages from Naral, an abortion rights group claiming they had the right to block “controversial or unsavory” text messages. They reversed position quickly but not before a significant media backlash:

    The move by Verizon Wireless to block--and then unblock--text messages from abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America is being cited as a key example of why the principles of "net neutrality" should be codified into law.

    ConsumerAffairs article: http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2007/09/verizon_abortion.html [consumeraffairs.com]

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