Today's Outrage: T-Mobile, Dude, Don't Bogart the Texts

T-Mobile is hit with a lawsuit alleging that it has illegally blocked access to a text messaging service that was working with a medical marijuana site.
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(T-Mobile cell phone, censorship story updated for expanded comments from Ez Texting about T-Mobile argument)

NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- Some of T-Mobile's more than 33 million subscribers may be asking the question, "Dude, where's my text message?" based on a recent decision by the cell phone giant to block access to a text message service.

The

Deutsche Telekom

(DTEGY)

cell phone provider is being sued by a text messaging service, Ez Texting, for allegedly blocking text messages from a medical marijuana site to which Ez Texting was providing cell phone users access. The Web service -- known by the formal URL of legalmarijuanadispensary.com, and also by the less-official sounding URL of WeedMaps.com -- offers information about medical marijuana dispensaries only in states where they are legal, according to the suit.

Ez Texting says in the lawsuit that it broke up its buddy relationship with WeedMaps.com after learning that T-Mobile objected, but that its service was blocked anyway, and it's business could be "cashed" as a result of T-Mobile's action. According to the lawsuit, even after agreeing to drop WeedMaps.com, T-Mobile left Ez Texting with no option but to create a brand-new connection service, a process that could take up to six months.

The lawsuit filed by Ez Texting against T-Mobile extends an existing debate about the power of telecommunications companies over policing content, and the debate over whether the same rules that keep phone carriers from blocking calls should apply to text messaging. Common carrier rules which apply to phone lines prevent a telecommunications company from blocking calls.

It isn't just a debate about censorship or the increasing power of telecommunications companies, either. It's also the latest example of the increasing lack of individual freedom that has resulted from the supposed exponential increase in freedom created by technology. You've got more and more gadgets and less and less control over what they allow you to access.

The suit filed last Friday by Ez Texting alleges that T-Mobile acted as if it were above the law when it blocked what is called a short code for WeedMaps.com, for which Ez Texting had been sending out to customers information on doctors, cooperatives and medical marijuana dispensaries, only in states where medical marijuana is legal.

Ez Texting claims that it's a violation of free speech, and one might add, a wanton disregard of the unalienable right to toke for medical purposes.

T-Mobile doesn't need to approve of the Web site, but does it have the legal right to police the Web site on behalf of its users, some of whom may even be downloading Bob Marley tunes as their personal ring tones?

Shane Neman, chief executive of Ez Texting, told the

Washington Post

that T-Mobile had every right to disapprove of the web site's content. However, the CEO of Ez Texting added, "We feel this is illegal blocking and that consumers have the right to send and receive any text message of their choosing."

So far, the court is far from showing itself to be a kind bud to Ez Texting, though, denying the text messaging service's motion for early relief.

It's far from the first time this issue has piped up.

Verizon's

(VZ) - Get Report

wireless service allegedly blocked texts by the abortion rights group NARAL in 2007.

Sprint Nextel

(S) - Get Report

found itself on the receiving end of criticism this year for allegedly blocking text messages that connected users to Catholic Charities for Haiti earthquake relief.

T-Mobile executives weren't commenting on its decision, but the company issued a expanded statement on Tuesday afternoon arguing that, more or less, Ez Texting management must be high as a kite if it thinks the issue was ever about the content of WeedMaps.com.

"Though T-Mobile doesn't typically comment on pending litigation, we believe it is important to clear up some of the confusion generated by Ez Texting's allegations. 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," T-Mobile stated in an email.

"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.... We are pleased that the court denied EZ Texting's motion for early relief, which would have required T-Mobile to reinstate the shortcode. We believe the claims in the lawsuit are meritless," the cell phone carrier added in its email to

TheStreet

.

However, Ez Texting says that T-Mobile is blowing smoke in its latest argument.

"It's statement is inconsistent with the reasons that were communicated to Ez Texting when T-Mobile began its unlawful blocking," the text messaging service provider wrote in an email to

TheStreet

"T-Mobile admits that it is blocking all text messages exchanged between its customers and Ez Texting's customers. T-Mobile now claims that it is blocking Ez Texting because we didn't follow some unidentified 'process' to T-Mobile's private satisfaction. In any event, T-Mobile's reason for blocking Ez Texting is irrelevant as T-Mobile has no right to block Ez Texting in the first place. One thing is for sure, however, T-Mobile has never stated that any of its customers have ever complained about text messages from Ez Texting. That's because T-Mobile's customers want to exchange text messages with Ez Texting's customers. Consumers have a right to exchange text messages with whomever they like, just like any other type of call," the statement from Ez Texting continued.

Ez Texting says that ever since T-Mobile began blocking its service, the cell phone company has refused to communicate with Ez Texting, which is the reason Ez Texting is pursuing the matter in court.

The Verizon case led public advocacy group

Public Knowledge

to ask the Federal Communications Commission to rule on this issue three years ago, but with all the alertness and diligence of a stoner, three years later the FCC still hasn't responded to the petition.

According to Public Knowledge, consumers sent 152 billion text messages last year, compared with 9 billion in 2005. Cell phone carriers have made a killing on the exponential increase in text messaging, too, with claims of monopoly pricing for text messaging after an initial period of practically giving text service away to subscribers to get users hooked.

With text messaging service now costing as much per month as a decent dime bag of Humboldt, does a cell phone company have the right to cry foul against another company for being a "pusher?"

On a more personal note about T-Mobile cell phone service, a "friend" of mine who happens to be a T-Mobile customer could rightly be miffed that the cell phone company did nothing to block a text messaging service that bombarded this user with spam messages for months earlier this year, one of which resulted in this "friend" discovering that he had inadvertently been signed up for a $10 per month subscription to a celebrity gossip text messaging service.

I can safely say that this "friend" would rather that those in need of medical marijuana be able to locate a bag and a bong than pay $10 a month because T-Mobile allows other text message services to charge me unwittingly for the latest news on former child TV stars' drug busts.

A hearing is set for Sept. 30. Verizon settled its spat over the abortion rights group before ending up in court.

Let's hope that before the court date T-Mobile mellows out, and that maybe, one day in the not too distant future, the FCC shows itself to be a joint that actually cares about the individual consumer.

The message to the FCC and T-Mobile, and all cell phone companies is clear: don't bogart that text message.

--Written by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.

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