Congress Begs Telecom for One Last Chance to Text for Cash

·5 min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Two of the big telecom companies are hitting pause on new texting rules that campaigns and advocacy groups say could cut off their most effective communications channel to reach voters, provide accurate voting information, and carry out public advocacy campaigns following pressure from Congress.

In a letter sent earlier this month and obtained by The Daily Beast, 13 Democratic senators asked the CEOs of T-Mobile and AT&T to hold off on any new texting rules until after upcoming elections in November, in order to “give us all time to dialogue on the unintended consequences we see by these industry decisions.”

Translation: don’t cut off fundraising and campaign organizing right before election day.

Since 2017, AT&T and T-Mobile have been working to implement what’s known as 10 Digit Long Code or 10DLC rules, which restrict businesses, campaigns, and advocacy groups’ ability to send unsolicited text messages to cellphone users through peer-to-peer texting software.

The move followed a surge in customer complaints about spam texts that has grown with cellphone usage.But campaigns, nonprofits, and advocacy groups say the prohibitions on unsolicited texts would unfairly deprive them of the most effective way to communicate with voters about critical polling information and election issues at a time when voting rights and access are under increasing threat.

For the moment, at least, those groups have gotten a reprieve.

AT&T now says it won’t implement 10DLC rules until after the upcoming elections in November. “We are currently in a grace period allowing us to ramp up our program, collect feedback on it, and improve the registration process for text senders,” according to a statement provided to The Daily Beast. The company added that it will provide text senders a 30-day notice before implementing any new rules.

T-Mobile did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast but a spokesperson for Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA), who signed the Democratic letter, said that the company responded with a pledge not to implement 10DLC rules until December 1.

Under the 10DLC rules, nonprofits and advocacy groups who use peer-to-peer (P2P) texting software—apps which let users send large numbers of text messages to recipients by repeatedly clicking a send button—can only send messages to users who have “opted in” to receive texts from them. Senders would also have to register with groups set up by the telecommunications industry to authenticate their identity.

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Verizon, the largest mobile telecommunications firm, has opted not to implement 10DLC rules on its services.

P2P texting has become a cornerstone of political advocacy work since liberal groups began using it in the early 2010s. In 2020, American cellphone users received nearly six billion text messages to prospective voters, many of them through P2P texting applications.

But nonprofits that work on voter registration, get-out-the-vote advocacy, correct voting misinformation, and do fundraising say 10DLC rules would cripple one of the most effective means to reach the kind of marginalized communities they say are increasingly at risk of disenfranchisement and voting misinformation.

“So many of these use cases are fully compliant with the law and are very much a public good,” Debra Cleaver, founder of the nonprofit VoteAmerica, a nonpartisan charitable group that helps voters with registration and polling information. “It definitely does seem that the telecommunications companies are serving some sort of para-government function and should not be allowed to exercise this kind of control.”

But with the growth of P2P messaging has come a rise in consumer complaints even long after the frenzied messaging surrounding the 2020 election. “Over the last 18 months, we have seen a 35 percent increase in text message traffic on our network, and a 300 percent increase in customer robotexts complaints,” AT&T said in a statement to The Daily Beast.

Text spam isn’t just annoying but can be dangerous as well. Hackers and scammers also use text messaging campaigns to send malware and con users out of their money. And during the 2020 campaign, a small number of bad actors used texting campaigns to send misinformation to voters heading to the polls.

Given the potential for abuse, not everyone thinks the looming 10DLC rules are entirely bad. Max Kamin-Cross was one of the first staff members at Hustle, a company which pioneered the use of peer-to-peer texting services to campaigns and advocacy groups, and has worked in political tech startups for a decade. He says he’s conflicted about his role in helping to popularize the service.

“It was going to happen eventually as the cost of sending texts was getting so cheap, but I do wish we’d implemented more anti-abuse features and best practices. I’ve seen the power that P2P text has to win campaigns but I’ve also seen it used as literal spam—that’s a situation that 10DLC can help prevent.”

Peer-to-peer texting “does have valid use cases” he says, but “the reality is that this channel has become overridden with spam.”

Democratic-leaning groups and campaigns have been vocal on the threat of 10DLC rules while conservatives have kept a lower profile on the issue. A source familiar with the advocacy effort against 10DLC regulations in Congress says that Republican lawmakers have been quietly pressing telecom companies for answers about the new rules, fearing their own campaigns and advocacy efforts could be similarly damaged.

Though advocacy groups have a few more weeks before the new 10DLC can take hold, it’s unclear what steps, if any, they’ll be able to take to delay or prevent the new rules from going into effect. The Coalition for Open Messaging, a new P2P advocacy group, did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.

In the meantime, activist groups and nonprofits are having to come up with contingency plans in the event that the new rules come into force and crimp their access to a mass audience of cell phone users.

“We’re goal-oriented and tactic agnostic but this will eliminate one of our most effective channels in terms of scale,” says Cleaver. “We’ll come up with something new but it’ll be more expensive, and slower, and potentially less effective.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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