Verizon Wireless to allow abortion rights messages

NEW YORK Thu Sep 27, 2007 5:01pm EDT

Traffic passes Verizon Communications Inc. headquarters in New York, February 14, 2005. REUTERS/Peter Morgan

Traffic passes Verizon Communications Inc. headquarters in New York, February 14, 2005.

Credit: Reuters/Peter Morgan

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Verizon Wireless will allow an abortion rights group to set up a text message system for its subscribers after initially refusing the request based on what the company called an outdated screening policy, a spokesman said on Thursday.

The second-largest U.S. mobile phone carrier had denied a request from NARAL Pro-Choice America to set up alerts for subscribers who sign up for notices by sending a text message to a number known as a short code.

The decision drew the ire of NARAL supporters and Verizon Wireless customers who called it an attempt to censor debate on abortion, especially as mobile messaging becomes a regular tool for communicating political notices.

"The bottom line is they got caught in the act," said NARAL spokesman Ted Miller. "They have approved short codes for multiple other vendors and other organizations. What Verizon did reflects how a corporation can unilaterally try to censor messages from people who have asked to receive them."

Miller said the group's supporters sent thousands of messages expressing their outrage to Verizon Wireless within hours after the rejection was reported by the New York Times late on Wednesday.

The company, which is a venture of Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N) and Vodafone Group Plc (VOD.L), reversed its decision on Thursday morning.

NARAL said it received a letter last week from Verizon Wireless' legal department rejecting its request for a text messaging system.

It quoted Verizon Wireless as saying it would not allow groups to distribute material that "in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users."

Verizon Wireless said the policy was created before it had designed spam filters and other measures to prevent unwanted texts, such as hate messages or adult materials, from reaching its customers.

"The decision not to allow text messaging on an important, though sensitive, public policy issue was incorrect," Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said. "We have fixed the process that led to this isolated incident."

Nelson said the NARAL message system was already in operation on Thursday and that the company would not restrict similar services to groups or individuals.

"We have great respect for this free flow of ideas and will continue to protect the ability to communicate broadly through our messaging service," he said.

Other major U.S. wireless carriers had agreed to allow NARAL to set up a group messaging system, a spokesman for the group said.

Critics said Verizon Wireless' actions raised new questions about the control exerted by communications providers.

"I am particularly concerned by its ability and apparent willingness to interfere when customers choose to receive legitimate and legal communications from an organization," said Democrat John Dingell, chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, which deals with telecommunications issues.

Dingell said he sought a stronger statement from the company that it will not restrict the transmission of any legal material requested by its consumers.

(Additional reporting by Sinead Carew and Julie Vorman in Washington)

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