This story is part of, CNET’s coverage of the run-up to voting in November.
President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is reportedly clashing with wireless carriers Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile over whether its text messages should be blocked as spam.
Over the July Fourth weekend, the Trump campaign’s mass text message push was blocked by anti-spam monitors that work with the wireless carriers, according to Politico. A Business Insider story added more detail about Jared Kushner, a White House senior advisor and the son-in-law of the president, and a phone call he had with the three national US wireless carriers.
The move raises questions about how effective these mass text messages — a key tool for many politicians — will be for the Trump campaign. It also shines a light on the world of peer-to-peer text messaging, which was originally designed for individuals sending a handful of messages, but has since been co-opted by political campaigns, companies and other entities — often for legitimate reasons.
The Trump campaign says its text messages follow guidelines set by the Federal Communications Commission and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, and slammed the move to block them.
“Any effort by the carriers to restrict the campaign from contacting its supporters is suppression of political speech,” said a campaign spokeswoman.
T-Mobile and Verizon declined to comment. AT&T wasn’t available for comment.
So what happened? We’ve got some answers to help break down the situation.
What happened to the text messages?
The Trump campaign sent more than 1 million messages, flagging the monitors that carriers employ to block spam. As a result, the Trump program was taken offline.
How do these mass text messages work?
Political campaigns tap companies such as Hustle or RumbleUp that employ hundreds of people who each send thousands of text messages to potential voters. They’re exactly like the text messages that you or I send to our friends and family, and are categorized as peer-to-peer, or P2P messages. That’s different from what’s known as application-to-peer, or A2P, messages, which are more formal blast text messages.
Since P2P messages are normally supposed to be more limited exchanges between individuals, systems may flag accounts that send too many messages. If, for instance, you send more than 1,000 messages in a day, those messages will likely get blocked.
Companies will work with the carriers ahead of time to get prior approval to send these mass messages.
And this is popular with political campaigns?
Yes. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was the first to effectively employ this system with Hustle, which employed people to send personal text messages to prospective voters. You’ve likely seen an increase in volume of text messages from local campaigns during an election or primary.
It turns out, you’re more likely to respond to a text message than you are a phone call or email, which often are littered with spam or robocalls.
So what was the problem?
The volume of messages likely tripped up the system. But the potential issue may have been that the messages didn’t include clear opt-out language, and the senders may not have gained consent ahead of time.
While the carriers haven’t spoken about the incident, the CTIA, the trade group that represents the US wireless industry, made clear that recipients must be able to unsubscribe from unsolicited texts.
“We expect all senders — whether airlines, schools, banks or campaigns — to include clear opt-out language and gain prior consent before sending a text,” said a spokesman for the organization. “These simple steps help protect consumers from spam, and maintain text messaging as a trusted medium for everyone.”
But didn’t the Trump campaign say it was in compliance with the TCPA and FCC guidelines?
Yes, and that’s accurate. But that’s largely because the legal guidelines around these kinds of P2P text messages aren’t clear.
The TCPA and FCC have rules about abuse on autodialer systems that can automatically send messages or make phone calls. But there isn’t any guidance on these systems because they’re run by humans.
The CTIA’s statement about requiring opt-out language and prior consent are part of recommended guidelines to the industry for players like the carriers and senders like political campaigns. But the trade group has no ability to enforce these guidelines, which are more like mutually agreed upon practices than firm laws.
An upcoming Supreme Court case involving Facebook may offer some guidance on the legal definition of phone spam.
Facebook is involved?
Facebook seems to be everywhere lately, right? In 2015, Noah Duguid sued Facebook, complaining about getting unwanted text messages from the company (he didn’t have an account), which he claimed violated the TCPA. Facebook argued the messages were sent in error, but also argued that the messages were protected under the First Amendment. It also denied that it used an autodialer system, comparing its system more to a smartphone.
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s order to dismiss the suit, and it will now go before the Supreme Court later this year. Experts say the decision could provide some additional guidance on what constitutes an auto-dialer system, and even if these mass P2P systems fall under this definition.
What do the carriers say?
The carriers have officially been mum. But people close to the carriers note that the action was taken by third-party administrators who are tasked to protect consumers from spam.
So what happened with the Trump campaign?
The Politico story says it took five days to resolve the issue. The piece also noted that the incident fueled suspicion among Trump supporters that this was another example of the tech industry trying to influence the election.
Is this really the suppression of political speech?
A lot of these systems are flagged automatically or occur when customer complaints come in, so that’s a hard case to make. There’s no evidence that the carriers or their partners are flagging and blocking these messages for reasons other than preventing spam.
The telecom companies are also far more reserved when it comes to staking out a political position, with the carriers previously having praised Trump for his large corporate tax cut in 2017.
When it comes to combatting spam, the motivation is primarily driven by the need to eliminate something most people find annoying.
How big of a problem is spam on text messages?
Unlike robocalls, which have grown to be a scourge upon essentially everyone, spam text messages are far less of a problem. The CTIA estimates that about 3% of all text messages are spam, compared with nearly half of all e-mails.
That’s largely why campaign text messages seem more legit — there’s less of a stigma around spam in this area.
What do you do if you get a suspicious text message?
You can send the message to your carrier by forwarding it to 7726 (SPAM). The carrier takes note of that complaint, which typically informs action taken by the carrier or its third-party monitor.