On February 14, 2019, hundreds of thousands of text messages were ensnared in a defective communications server—only to be released months later. By the time these messages reached their recipients, their worlds had changed: Heartfelt valentines arrived from loves now lost; other late-arriving messages seemed to come from the ghosts of the recently passed. It could have been worse. Text messages help to enable a wide variety of critical applications, from public safety missives to corporate security protocols. If these sorts of messages had been trapped and later released, the results might have been far more concerning: Evacuation orders might have been lost, or late-arriving public safety warnings might have sparked misplaced panic. And yet there has been surprisingly little regulatory attention to this failure, among others, in the text messaging system.
These failures highlight the fragility of our communications infrastructure—both technical and regulatory. Technically, the text messaging system is surprisingly consolidated, creating effective bottlenecks (and isolated points of failure) in our communications network. Regulatorily, the Federal Communications Commission recently reclassified text messaging services, placing them beyond the Agency’s regulatory ambit. Together, this network consolidation and weak regulatory oversight give rise to important safety, security, and competition concerns. And so, this Valentine’s Day Server Failure should alert policymakers to the need to ensure that our regulatory infrastructure keeps pace with technological change.