Political Spam Is a Growing Problem in Text Messaging

Text messaging has become one of the most widely-used and trusted communication platforms in the U.S. with more than 4 in 5 Americans texting regularly and 5.5 billion messages being exchanged every day. But a novel threat presents new challenges: political spam.

In part, text messaging’s popularity is explained by the fact that users on alternative communication platforms, such as email and telephone services, face a deluge of unsolicited messages, spam and robocalls. Estimates suggest that up to 73 percent of emails are unwanted promotions for products and services, while the number of robocalls in the U.S.  — up to 58.5 billion last year, more than one per household per day — keeps shattering records.

Texting is different. Wireless providers are able to use sophisticated technologies — including filtering algorithms, robotext blocking, and machine learning — to prevent unwanted text messages from reaching users. Providers work to allow legitimate companies to use text messaging productively (such as banks and medical offices that send their customers texts to inform them of financial transactions and appointments), while preventing malicious entities from exploiting these platforms.

The wireless industry’s best practices manual emphasizes that organizations and businesses should obtain consumer consent — and provide an opportunity to revoke consent — when using text messaging. This model gives consumers the power to decide the kinds of messages they’re comfortable with. One user might prefer to use texting exclusively to communicate with loved ones, while another user might want to receive alerts from a bank or store.

As a result of these measures, the text messaging spam rate is under 3 percent and Americans express strong confidence in the integrity of text messaging. Nearly all texts are opened in minutes, while only 1 in 5 emails are opened at all. Texting platforms need to be kept spam free.

Because Americans view texting as a secure and convenient way to communicate with friends and family, political campaigns are increasingly exploiting a legal loophole to inundate users with advertisements, fundraising appeals, and reminders to register and vote, without obtaining their consent. This election cycle, candidates are on track to send voters more than one billion texts.

These messages are meaningfully indistinguishable from unwanted promotions by regular businesses, yet because of how they’re sent — using a peer-to-peer structure rather than an automated system — they circumvent laws meant to protect consumers. That needs to stop.

This isn’t about preventing political candidates from getting their message out or curbing anyone’s right to free speech. Blocking political messages that have not been consented to is not comparable to social media censorship that prevents even consenting audiences from accessing content.

Wireless providers and their industry partners should continue (and be encouraged to) to block messages that have not been consented to, including spam from political campaigns. And, campaigns should work with wireless providers and companies throughout the industry that help to send these messages in order to find suitable ways to support the industry’s best practices that protect consumers from unwanted messages.

If the status quo continues, come election time, consumers’ trust in text messaging as a secure and spam-free platform will be put in jeopardy. It is important to keep texting platforms spam free.

Liam Sigaud and Steve Pociask write for the American Consumer Institute (ACI) a nonprofit education and research organization. While Steve Pociask chairs the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee, the opinions here are solely ACI’s views.

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