A tiff over text messaging between T-Mobile and a medical marijuana website has worked its way into the courts and sparked a debate on how much power cell phone carriers should have over the texts their subscribers send and receive.
EZ Texting Inc., a New York mobile marketing firm, filed a suit last week with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against T-Mobile USA, alleging that the cell phone carrier unlawfully blocked the so-called cell phone "short code" that allowed its more than 10,000 clients communicate with subscribers via text.
Like American Idol's four-digit code that lets viewers vote by text, short codes are abbreviated cell phone numbers often used by non-profits and big brands for special campaigns.
EZ Texting says T-Mobile shut down the code because one of its clients is Weedmaps.com, a website that helps patients locate legal medical marijuana dispensaries in California and Colorado. WeedMaps had been an EZ Texting client for about a year and, until T-Mobile shut down the code, the company sent two daily "deal" text messages to more than 10,000 medical marijuana patients who subscribed to the service.
"[T-Mobile] decided that because they didn't like that content, they didn't want it to be on their mobile network, so they cut off the entire code," said EZ Texting CEO Shane Neman.
When asked about why the company shut down EZ Texting's short code, T-Mobile said the service was shut off due to a procedural issue and did not mention an issue with the Weedmaps content.
"Like other wireless carriers, T-Mobile has a process in place that follows the Mobile Marketing Association's best practices for reviewing, approving and establishing text message marketing campaigns," the company said in a statement. "In this case, this process was not followed and the shortcode has been disabled. Content services and campaigns need to be submitted to a content aggregator who then follows policies set forth by T-Mobile before a text message shortcode is approved for use."
Neman, however, says EZ Texting learned on Sept. 10 through a mobile messaging intermediary that T-Mobile had flagged the content on WeedMaps, calling it "an unsanctioned and inappropriate service."
Neman said T-Mobile then shut down EZ Texting's "313131" short code, effectively disabling text communication between any of its clients, including Weedmaps, and their T-Mobile subscribers.
Claiming "irreparable harm" to its business, in its lawsuit EZ Texting asked for a temporary restraining order to reactivate the short code and a permanent injunction to force T-Mobile to restore it. A judge has denied the restraining order, but EZ Texting's attorney Michael Hazzard said the judge ordered T-Mobile to respond by Sept. 22 and appear at a Sept. 30 hearing.
"It's really fast. He set an aggressive schedule," Hazard said. "I think he understands that we're being harmed and he wants to get to the bottom of it really quickly."
Hazzard said it appeared that the judge denied the restraining order (which would only have been effective for 10-20 days) because he hadn't yet heard T-Mobile's arguments and wants to hear more before making a decision on the injunction.