Texting vendors are facing a potential crisis moment. Practitioners and their clients are caught in the middle between an FCC enforcing some of its largest fines ever ($225M) for spam robocalling, tired consumers who are searching for ways to better filter incoming communications, and big carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T which are beginning to act in response to consumer complaints about unwanted calls and messages.
In addition, there’s the pending ruling in the Facebook-TCPA Supreme Court case from last December that could impact texting as well.
In this environment, an advocacy effort is underway to pressure the White House and Democratic congressional leaders to act to protect this form of political speech, which groups and vendors say will be curtailed by AT&T and T-Mobile’s introduction of a new regime governing Application-to-Person (A2P) messaging sent via standard 10-digit long code (10DLC) phone numbers.
According to Twilio, a texting platform used by many political vendors, the carriers are making the changes to provide “better delivery quality and lower filtering risk than long code SMS of the past, using the same phone numbers.”
The liberal groups and vendors pushing back say “these restrictions in actuality will quash grassroots advocacy, labor union organizing, and progressive movement building.”
Known simply as 10DLC, the new regime requires vendors to register themselves and register each individual texting campaign that they’re conducting. In some cases, it puts limits on how many texts you can send in a day. Registration was supposed to start this month, but AT&T has pushed it back until April 1. New registration requirements — and AT&T carrier fees for all Twilio messages to AT&T subscribers — start May 1. Registration must be completed by June 1 to avoid additional filtering.
“It is chaotic right now in terms of how [10DLC] is being rolled out and the impact it’s going to have on political use cases — especially for P2P texting, which we define differently than the carriers,” said Sandi Fox, founder of Smart As A Fox LLC, a progressive digital and mobile consulting firm.
“The FCC empowered the carriers to take action. At this time, what the carriers are saying is under no circumstances can you use a toll-free number, a short code or a long code (10DLC) to text an audience if they haven’t consented. And for 10DLC you’re required to register your organization and each individual texting campaign that you are conducting — plus they’re putting limits on how much you can text and creating ‘trust’ scoring [for deliverability.] They [the carriers] have a lot of power right now. They are basically grading brands and organizations, and could potentially blacklist texting providers and/or message senders.”
Fox said things will be status quo until the end of June, “then what you’re going to see is that anyone texting without an opt-in, and the numbers that aren’t registered to the campaign registry — they’re going to get surcharged, and your deliverability is going to get shot. And if you’re going to do opt-in texting, I always recommend using toll-free or short code, even more so at this point.”
In the meantime, vendors-turned-advocates are moving to form a coalition, which according to attorney Eric J. Troutman, an expert on the TCPA, the U.S. statute that governs texting and phones outreach, needs to be as broad as possible.
For instance, the five TCPA suits filed against right-leaning political organizations over two weeks in March indicate the need for bipartisanship among vendors, he said.
“If you see a large group of filings against one [party/side], you know the counter swing is going to be right around the corner,” said Troutman, a partner at Squire Patton Boggs.
Fighting back against carrier filtering, he said, “that advocacy needs to take place at the carrier level. My information is we’re a long way away from any legislative change.”
In many ways, this vendor coalition is starting from scratch. One vehicle vendors had used to battle the FCC, the P2P Alliance, appears dormant. Asked about its status, Hustle Co-Founder Roddy Lindsay, whose company helped spearhead the effort, declined to comment.
GOP vendors told C&E they’re working on the issue independently, and haven’t been approached about a bipartisan effort. But if that call came, they’d be on board. Right now that call appears unlikely to come.
“We control the government so I don’t know how important it is, to be honest,” said Movement Labs CEO Yoni Landau, who has organized calls with practitioners on the left to discuss the issue and advocating for the industry’s position. “At this point, after Jan.6, I’m not sure that bipartisanship has a good sheen at this point on our side. It’s just a bad taste.”
Because Movement Labs mobilizes texting volunteers on behalf of progressive groups and campaigns and doesn’t just send messages itself, Landau said they’re in a position to rally the left side of the industry.
“We have a little bit more capacity to do advocacy for vendors,” he said. “The real issue for us is that we think that political speech to voters, not just members of a list, is protected.”
In other words, what the political texting industry considers P2P texts, even if they’re to a non-opted-in contact list, shouldn’t be considered spam messages.
The carriers, he added, are “really trying to crack down on commercial and malicious spam. That’s their main focus. It’s not really political texts. They [just] haven’t really invested the time on the implications of cracking down generally on texting. I think that what’s at stake is just a very valuable way to connect with voters.”