A Rising Enforcement of Censorship

In recent weeks, I’ve noticed a rise in censorship regarding SMS communication that’s not being discussed. At all. I’m concerned that it may become a slippery slope that eventually effects us all. I don’t have any dramatic, prose-ridden introduction this week. Just some news, facts, and observations I wanted to share. So this week, follow me down the rabbit hole as I explore an existing but rising threat to our free speech and what we can do about it.

For context, I am a MySudo user. I have expressed criticisms in the past with their podcast, and their marketing continues to grate on my nerves. I have said many times I want to explore some additional VoIP options, but I haven’t made the time. For now, it works – about as well as any other VoIP app, which is “not well but good enough most of the time, I guess” – so it just hasn’t been a priority.

Those who follow me on my personal Mastodon or the podcast on Patreon have probably noticed I like to curse. A lot. No real reason for it, to be honest. I don’t think it makes me sound tough or cool – in fact, I recognize it probably turns some people off – but as former military, it just feels natural and comfortable to drop some curse words to highlight my point. I like hyperbolic humor. So it probably won’t come as a surprise when I say “I send curse words via message a lot.”

The censorship issue first rose to my attention a few months ago. I was catching up with an old friend over text, and toward the end of our conversation, I tried to say something along the lines of “f*** [a particular political issue].” The message failed to send. Now, as I said earlier, I’m kind of used to MySudo not being perfect. I’m not sure this is their fault – I’ve tried a number of VoIP apps and none of them are really great. I’m not the first person to express this criticism. Somewhere in the back of my brain, however, I must’ve realized that the message itself was being censored, because my eventual solution was to screenshot it, crop it, and send it again. Success!

The second issue happened a few weeks after that. I was on my way to work in the morning when I noticed my coworker had sent me a text message that I hadn’t noticed – cause, ya know, I was driving and not watching my phone. I work a relatively blue-collar day job, it wasn’t through official work channels (like Teams), and my coworkers know me pretty well by now, so I replied with something like “Oh s***, sorry man, I just saw this.” Once again, failed to send. The light turned green (I only text at red lights), so I decided to call instead and deliver the message.

That night, the string that connected the dots came in the form of JMP.Chat’s blog. I try to follow the official blogs of all the various services I recommend so I can keep up with any major news or developments to share with my audience. In a blog post titled “SMS Routes, RCS, and more!,” there was this section near the top that caught my eye titled “SMS Censorship, New Routes”:

We have written before about the increasing levels of censorship across the SMS network. When we published that article, we had no idea just how bad things were about to get. Our main SMS route decided at the beginning of April to begin censoring all messages both ways containing many common profanities. There was quite some back and forth about this, but in the end this carrier has declared that the SMS network is not meant for person-to-person communication and they don’t believe in allowing any profanity to cross their network. (Emphasis mine.)

I started reading that section not because I thought it applied to me, but because I’m always interested in censorship and wanted to know what was being censored and what the issue was. But then that one line caught my eye. Instantly my brain thought about that morning. Then a few weeks prior. I slid over to my phone and texted my coworker: “Hey, I’m testing something. Ignore the next message.” We’ve worked together for years and he’s known about my connection to The New Oil, so he’s kind of used to this stuff. He simply replied “Okay lol” and I copy and pasted the message from that morning that had failed to send, making only one change: “Oh, sorry man, I just saw this.” I erased the curse word. And instantly it was delivered. Just for good measure, I tried the original with the curse word again. Failed. I suddenly remembered a third, similar incident with a different coworker that had happened in between the two incidents. I don’t remember using a curse word in that text, but as I said at the top, cursing is just part of my vernacular. It’s highly likely I did. The next morning I explained to my coworker why I had texted him and what I had discovered.

For the next few days, this continued to stick in my head. Did MySudo know about this problem? They had never mentioned it. Although, given their highly misleading, trash marketing, it was pretty likely they weren’t exactly rushing to be transparent about the problem even if it was beyond their control. I finally decided to email them to ask more about it. I sent a support ticket asking “I think your carrier is censoring messages that contain profanity. Do you know if this is the case?” A few days later, MySudo replied, confirming that was the case, citing stricter enforcement of “SHAFT” rules by MySudo’s third-party telephony provider. They suggested switching to Sudo-to-Sudo messaging. I sent them a follow-up asking what “SHAFT” is so I could do some further digging (to which they did reply). And then, a couple weeks later (and before I had made time to dig in further), they posted this blog post, finally shedding light on the situation. Here’s the relevant part:

SMS in the United States is governed by strict rules and regulations around prohibited or limited content. The wireless industry trade association CTIA monitors and enforces these rules, and mobile carriers must comply with them. One of those rules covers content within the category known as SHAFT or Sex, Hate, Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco. Within the Hate category sits profanity or swear words. So, if you’re sending or trying to receive a text message with swear words in the U.S., chances are the carrier will block it.

We behave differently when we know we’re being watched. I talk about this on the website, and will include additional links and sources in my next upcoming video. I also know this firsthand. I first discovered TAILS while I still in the military and thought “wow, that’s really cool! But also I probably shouldn’t mess with it, I’m sure I’ll get in trouble for some reason. I’ll wait til I’m out.” (That's just one story of many I could cite.) Now, I get to live the joy (sarcasm intended) of being under scrutiny again. Now, when I reply to messages, I have to ask myself “did I put in any curse words? Did I include anything that could be considered a curse word by the filters?” I don’t think it’s a controversial take that this is problematic on multiple levels. My provider should have no right to tell me what to say, especially when I’m talking to other people who have consented to me talking that way. What’s next? Will they censor “The president sucks”? or “I hate [insert famous figure here]”?

Now one can make the argument that maybe I just shouldn’t curse. Some people don’t like it, and clearly I’m very capable of conveying my ideas without it. Maybe. But some people don’t like that gay people exist. Or black people. Or that women have jobs. Or China. Or other political ideologies. We can’t just say “I don’t like that thing, let’s repress it.” That’s the entire point of censorship. This is especially concerning when we talk something like phone carriers, which are the backbone of our communications network. I’m told that in other countries, services like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram are common because SMS messages cost money, but in America (and I assume at least a few other Western countries), that’s not the case. Here, it’s still pretty common. And the idea of “Just go somewhere else” is completely insane. Unless you’re about to go out and found your own carrier to prove me wrong, I don’t want to hear it.

Unfortunately, it’s the only solution we now have. Behavior like this adds another practical reason why end-to-end encrypted messaging needs to become the default. Some people have strong opinions on censorship of any kind: if I ban you from my Mastodon instance for any reason, some people view that as censorship. I disagree. There’s nothing stopping you from joining another instance – or even starting your own (in fact, I plan to post some tutorials later this year on how to install and run services like Mastodon or PeerTube). This is a far cry from the carriers as a whole colluding to tell us not to say bad words, which is a ridiculous solution to whatever issue they’re ostensibly trying to solve. This is a slippery slope and a troubling development. As MySudo noted, these SHAFT rules are not new, but they are being cracked down on. This is why we can never call it victory when someone says “well, I won’t do it now, but I’m gonna leave the option open.” We have to accept nothing less than fully secured communications that can’t be read, scanned, and censored on a whim. Yesterday it was CSAM. Today it’s mean words. Tomorrow it could be dissent.

Fuck. That. Use encryption.

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