Should Cell Phone Companies Have Control Over Nonprofits' Messaging?

Over two years ago, we reported that Verizon Wireless prohibited the content in a text message campaign from Naral Pro-Choice America because they claimed, "it had the right to block 'controversial or unsavory' text messages." The issue of whether or not wireless phone companies can restrict what nonprofits say in a text message to its members has come up again.  An opinion article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy discusses these issues, written by Vincent Stehle a philanthropic consultant.

Following the earthquake in Haiti, many charities were using text messages to generate donations, but Catholic Relief Services faced obstacles from Sprint. The group wanted to have supporters connected to a message from their president and then speak to an operator to learn more about the organization's relief operations. The intention was that those who talked to an operator would give additional donations, and in larger amounts compared to giving via text messages.

Sprint required that the organizations helping Catholic Relief Services with the campaign submit information to prove the legitimacy of the operation. As Stehle points out, cell phone companies should make sure that nonprofits are acting lawfully when they use the text-to-donate system. However, in the case of Catholic Relief Services, the donations would not appear on phone bills and should avoid Sprint's investigation.

The article urges action because, "unless regulators resolve those issues, charities will be unable to take a key step in innovating their fund-raising practices without fear of being shut down by telecommunications companies. In a petition to the Federal Communications Commission by Free Press and Public Knowledge, the two media-policy groups urged the commission to make a ruling that would clarify the rules governing mobile-phone services, prohibiting unreasonable discrimination in offering their text-messaging services."

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