Did The FCC Ban Mobile Spam?
By Mike Masnick, Wed Aug 04 23:45:00 GMT 2004

The FCC is getting a lot of attention for supposedly banning "mobile spam," but the details suggest that they did very little... and that mobile spam may already have been banned.


Spam is a popular topic. It impacts just about everyone these days, unfortunately. In the US, the CAN SPAM Act has received a lot of attention this year, though it hasn't done much to slow the spread of spam (and, some claim it's made it easier to spam by outlining the "rules" under which spam is legal). Part of that law required the FCC to make it clear how the law applied to "mobile service messages," sometime before the end of August. Trying to get a jump on their summer vacations, however, the FCC Commissioners today got it out of the way by voting to stop spam to mobile phones.

At least that's the way it's being reported. The details aren't quite as interesting, unfortunately. While most of the mobile phone-carrying world thinks "SMS text messages" when they hear mobile spam, the FCC ruling only applies to email messages to a mobile phone. This seems especially odd. First, why should the device the email message is received on make any difference? Lots of people check their email on their phones, and if the email is banned when they receive it on their desktop, why should be the law be different when they access the same message on their mobile phones? The answer is because they're not even talking about your regular email that you forward to a mobile phone -- but only email spam that is sent directly to a special email address for that phone as given by the carrier.

Most carriers provide some way of translating your phone number into an email address (often something along the lines of yourphonenumber@mail.yourcarrier.com), and this ruling only applies to those accounts. The FCC has asked the carriers to designate what domain they use for those email addresses, and the FCC will build a "registry" of the 10 or so domains they're told about and make it known that no one can spam those addresses. Realistically, all this is doing is closing one of the many loopholes in the original CAN SPAM. Since that law allows a spammer to send unsolicited email under certain circumstances, this law has made it so spammers can't send unsolicited email to those phone email addresses under any circumstance. It's a small victory, at best.

More to the point, however, the FCC made it very clear that this ruling means absolutely nothing when it comes to SMS spam. Instead, they believe that other laws, such as the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (which bans junk faxes), covers the SMS situation.

Indeed, Verizon Wireless, certainly wasn't waiting around for clarification from the FCC. A few weeks ago, Verizon sent its lawyers after an SMS spammer using the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and a few other laws. While most of the press proclaimed this as one of the first lawsuits against SMS spam, this ignores the fact that Verizon Wireless already went after SMS spammers nearly three years ago. That case, which was eventually settled, was based on an anti-spam law for the state of Colorado, showing there are any number of laws that carriers may come up with to attack spam. What's not clear, however, is whether any of these regulations or lawsuits will actually do anything to slow down mobile spam. It hasn't worked in the email spam world yet, so it's not clear if walking down the same path will make much of a difference in the SMS world.