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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Text and Multimedia Messaging: Emerging Issues for Congress

Patricia Moloney Figliola
Specialist in Internet and Telecommunications Policy

The first text messages were sent during 1992 and 1993, although commercially, text messaging was not widely offered or used until 2000. Even then, messages could only be sent between users subscribed to the same wireless carrier, e.g., Sprint customers could only exchange messages with other Sprint customers. In November 2001, however, wireless service providers began to connect their networks for text messaging, allowing subscribers on different networks to exchange text messages. Since then, the number of text messages in the United States has grown to over 48 billion messages every month. Additionally, text messages are no longer only sent as "point-to-point" communications between two mobile device users. More specifically, messages are also commonly sent from Web-based applications within a Web browser (e.g., from an Internet e-mail address) and from instant messaging clients like AIM or MSN.

For Congressional policymakers, two major categories of issues have arisen: (1) "same problem, different platform" and (2) issues stemming from the difficulty in applying existing technical definitions to a new service, such as whether a text message is sent "phone-to-phone" or using the phone's associated email address. There are numerous examples of each. An example of the first category would be consumer fraud and children's accessing inappropriate content, which have existed previously in the "wired world," but have now found their way to the "wireless world." An example of the second category would be that spam sent between two phones or from one phone to many phones does not fall under the definition of spam in the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act, P.L. 108-187); however, if that same message were to be sent from a phone or computer using the phone's associated e-mail address, it would.

The increasing use of text and multimedia messaging has raised several policy issues: applicability of CAN-SPAM Act to unwanted wireless messages; refusal of some carriers to allow users to disable text messaging; carrier blocking of Common Short Code messages; deceptive and misleading Common Short Code programs; protecting children from inappropriate content on wireless devices; "sexting"; mobile cyberbullying; and balancing user privacy with "Sunshine," Open Government, and Freedom of Information Laws.

Date of Report: July 20, 2010
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: RL34632
Price: $29.95

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