T-Mobile sued for allegedly blocking pot-related texting

EZ Texting, a company that helps businesses send marketing text messages to large numbers of people, claims T-Mobile has arbitrarily closed its network to EZ because an EZ client provided information on medical marijuana.

In a case with free speech and Net neutrality implications, T-Mobile has been sued by a text message marketing company for allegedly blocking access to the T-Mobile network because of a client that provided information on medical marijuana.

EZ Texting, a New York-based company that helps businesses send marketing text messages to large numbers of people, filed the suit (PDF) yesterday with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The company is one of those that provide the behind-the-scenes infrastructure for the type of ad that asks consumers to text a specific word to a specific number to get more information on a product--"Text 'jeans' to 313131," for example.

In its suit, EZ Texting says that last week, T-Mobile cut off access to its network after learning of an EZ client of which T-Mobile "did not approve": legalmarijuanadispensary.com, aka WeedMaps, which describes itself as "a community where medical marijuana patients connect with other patients in their geographic region to freely discuss and review local cannabis co-operatives, dispensaries, medical doctors, and delivery services."

The suit says T-Mobile pulled the plug even after EZ Texting had informed the carrier that it had stopped providing its service to WeedMaps for fear of being shut out (even though, the suit says, WeedMaps caters to people in states where medical marijuana is legal and is thus itself a legal enterprise). The suit claims EZ Texting will go out of business if access to the T-Mobile network isn't restored.

"This case is yet another example of a totally arbitrary decision by a carrier to block text message calls between consumers and organizations they want to communicate with," Gigi Sohn, president of public interest group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "The FCC should put a fast end to this blocking by issuing the ruling we asked them for three years ago."

In 2007, Public Knowledge filed a petition with the FCC asking that the same sort of nondiscrimination laws that apply to telephone communications be extended to text messaging.

"As part of the text messaging infrastructure, short codes [such as the "313131" used in EZ Texting's service] are developing into an important tool for political and social outreach," the petition says. "Mobile carriers currently can and do arbitrarily decide what customers to serve and which speech to allow on text messages, refusing to serve those that they find controversial or that compete with the mobile carriers' services. This type of discrimination would be unthinkable and illegal in the world of voice communications, and it should be so in the world of text messaging as well."

The 2007 petition came after Verizon told NARAL Pro-Choice America that it would not let the reproductive rights organization send text messages through a program using Verizon's mobile network, because, Verizon said, carriers had the right to block "controversial or unsavory" text messages. The company later reversed its position after significant media coverage.

The free speech ideas underpinning the texting issue are not far removed from those involved in the debate over Net neutrality. Opponents of Net neutrality, namely carriers, say that some broadband services tax network resources more heavily than others and that, accordingly, carriers should have the right to manage access to their networks. But Net neutrality supporters say this power could easily be used to discriminate, for any number of reasons, and that the FCC should step in to insure equal access to the networks and to the Internet.

At the beginning of September, the FCC suggested it would delay action on Net neutrality for the time being.

T-Mobile did not respond by publication time to a request for comment on the EZ Texting lawsuit.

Update Sept. 22 at 6:18 a.m. PDT: T-Mobile yesterday posted a statement to its Web site, saying that it believes EZ Texting's lawsuit is without merit and that it wanted to "clear up some of the confusion" spurred by the allegations. The wireless carrier also offered an explanation for its actions:

Each carrier has a process to ensure that content providers like EZ Texting follow the Mobile Marketing Association's U.S. Consumer Best Practices Guidelines for Cross-Carrier Mobile Content Programs, as well as other regulations applicable to the mobile content business. When T-Mobile discovered that EZ Texting had not followed this process for WeedMaps - the text messaging service at issue in the lawsuit - we turned off the short code that EZ Texting was using for these services. The content of the WeedMaps service simply had nothing to do with T-Mobile's decision.
 

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