Why Are Telecommunications Companies So Sluggish On Text Harassment?

During the Presidential election, I received a string of extremely annoying electioneering calls from the California Democratic Party on my cell phone, often at extremely antisocial hours. While those calls are legal on landlines, they are not allowed on cell phones, and I registered my irritation with the CDP (of which I am not a member, incidentally) and got back a very rude response about ‘free speech,’ so I resorted to filing complaints with Verizon and the Public Utilities Commission. That put a stop to things, thankfully.

Thanks to overwhelming consumer irritation and vociferous complaints, phone companies have gotten a lot better about dealing with unwanted phone calls. There are do not call lists, there are mechanisms for blocking calls from specific numbers, and there are other steps people can take to get people to stop calling them. There are all kinds of reasons why people might want to do that, and harassment is certainly one of them.

But what about texts? Almost as soon as texting technology was developed, people started abusing it, and harassment is a really common abuse of texting. Text harassment is insidious, and it’s unpleasant, and it is a pain in the ass. People can use automated software to send texts randomly, doing things like waking their victims up while they get to sleep through the night, or sending a flood of texts to someone’s phone when that person is trying to work, or get through a meeting, or whatever else. Like phone calls, texts can be abusive and threatening and unpleasant and highly undesirable.

Given that texts are increasingly being used for harassment, why aren’t telecommunications companies doing more to address text harassment? If you are being harassed via text, your options boil down to turning texting off, or changing your number and hoping that no one gives it out to your harasser.

Both of these measures are completely unreasonable. First of all, they put the responsibility on the victim, as usual, to get the harassment to stop. The person being texted is not responsible for the person perpetrating the abuse. The person sending harassing texts is responsible, and that is the person who should be held accountable. Victims have enough to deal with as it is without having to deal with getting the harassment to stop, especially since text harassment usually does not occur as a standalone, but as part of a larger abusive relationship.

Both measures also ask people to do things they may not want to do or may not be able to do. By placing the responsibility on victims, phone companies are also placing the inconvenience on the victim. Even if someone doesn’t genuinely need a texting service, turning it off is just another way to let the harasser win. It’s another reminder that the victim is expected to modify ou life in order to avoid being harassed, that the abuser will never be expected to take responsibility for the harmful actions and the victim will have to do something to get it to stop. We agree that addressing rape by telling people ‘don’t get raped’ is a problem, and by the same token, demanding that people deal with harassment by closing themselves off is a problem.

Changing your number? Please! What if you’ve had a number for 10 years and you’re worried that people might lose track of you? What if it’s your work number? What if…there are any number of reasons, but ultimately, it all comes back to the core problem, that the victim is being told to inconvenience ouself in order to put a stop to harassment. The harasser can continue on ou merry way, with absolutely no consequences.

Yes, you can report text harassment to the police. You can even get a judge to include it in a no contact order, although such orders are only useful inasmuch as people comply with them. If you have an order and someone violates it, you can contact the police, but tracking down the harasser for a slap on the wrist might not be a high priority unless the texts include credible threats.

A simple solution would be to allow phone customers to block texts from specific numbers, just like they can block phone calls. Yes, people could get around it with SMS spoofing, although spoofing isn’t legal in all areas, but, honestly, a lot of harassers would probably not bother to do that, especially if it was blocked in a way that didn’t tip them off. With phone blocking, you have the option of simulating rings to make it sound like calls are going through, or having a short recorded message saying that the number has been blocked, and I should think you could do the same thing with texts; they could bounce back to the harasser to make it clear they are being blocked, or they could appear to go through, without ever reaching your phone, and fool the harasser into thinking you are getting them.

This should not be that hard to implement, yet, evidently, it is. Are we going to have to pass an act of legislature to get telecommunications companies to stop lagging on text harassment and start doing something? Or will some company with a savvy business model actively promote the ability to block texts and unwanted picture messages and use it to woo away customers? Because, I tell you what, that is a service I would absolutely switch phone providers for, and I suspect that a lot of people feel the same way.

Text harassment is intrusive, it’s violating, it’s offensive, and it should be preventable. There is no reason for phone companies to be sluggish on blocking it, unless they really are making so much money through charging people to receive abusive texts that they can’t stand the thought of losing all those revenues. And if that is the case, if that is why phone companies are not getting proactive about text harassment, that is really, really sad.