Last week broadband giant AT&T took out some very large (we’re talking full page) ads in the paper. AT&T advocated for net neutrality and called for an ‘Internet Bill of Rights’ to govern not only broadband Internet access, but the entire Internet. The ads included a letter from Chairman and CEO, Randall Stephenson, deceptively stating that AT&T is “committed to an open Internet.”
The response is, unsurprisingly, less than positive. Gizmodo said that AT&T is “full of shit.” TechCrunch proclaimed their announcement is a “red herring,” or power play against Google and Facebook. Here’s what we think about AT&T’s sudden change of heart.
AT&T’s hypocrisy is great, although not shocking. AT&T was one of the largest opponents of the FCC’s effort to pass net neutrality rules between 2010-2015. AT&T has fought hard against any potential application of Title ll common carrier regulation over broadband facilities or Internet access since the late 1990s. AT&T appealed the 2015 order and lost in court, then immediately began lobbying for repeal after the 2016 election. They were tied as the top spender in lobbying against net neutrality and spent a whopping $572 million over the past 9 years according to one report. AT&T has never supported an open Internet. Their sudden about face indicating otherwise is nothing short of absurd.
It Purposefully Conflates Issues
The proposed ‘bill of rights’ is confusing, and intentionally confuses disparate issues. AT&T says that “net neutrality” should be extended to companies that use the Internet to supply services and content. But this is not true. While some Internet companies may have significant market power which they abuse, especially with regard to privacy, the basic reason net neutrality protections are necessary is the complete lack of competition for broadband Internet access. Facebook and Twitter are not “ISPs.” They don’t provide access to the Internet but services on the Internet. The industries are fundamentally different, and net neutrality was not intended to cast such a wide net.
It’s Misleading At Best, Manipulative At Worst
AT&T is not suddenly embracing net neutrality. Instead, they are trying to escape regulations they don’t like by pushing for ill-suited regulation on others that do different things, dragging companies they envy into the regulatory arena which they own and control. Their carefully-crafted commentary indicates as much:
“We don’t block websites,” Stephenson writes. “We don’t censor online content. And we don’t throttle, discriminate, or degrade network performance based on content. Period.”
They say they don’t do these things currently, not that they won’t. Further, AT&T actually did do these things, before and after they were prohibited by law (as indicated by their 100 million fine for violation of rules under Title ll). Once regulation is removed it’s likely they will return to their old ways.
The statement also omits mention regarding speed aspects of net neutrality, or paid prioritization, so we can be sure they fully intend to quickly re-institute the “pay to play” model so detrimental to consumers.
What’s Really Going On?
Picking up on public opinion (outrage) and widespread support for the net neutrality protections they worked so hard to repeal, this is an attempt by AT&T to reframe the conversation. AT&T wants to look like a “good guy,” ensure any new rules benefit them, while directly hurting the non-ISP competitors they find so pesky.
By “supporting” an open Internet, AT&T aims to gain favor while simultaneously retaining control over whatever regulations may replace net neutrality — since it’s looking like something will. New broadband-specific regulations would likely prove damaging to AT&T and their bottom line, and state-level legislation would be a major headache to comply with. By taking an active role and proposing a ‘bill of rights,’ AT&T ensures new rules will be favorable and easy for them to comply with – or circumvent.
AT&T’s proposal encompasses the tech industry at large in an attempt to not only deflect responsibility, but to take aim at their competition. They have long felt “edge” providers like Google are not subject to the same stringent regulations as broadband – and they have long disliked this fact. AT&T disregards the fact they are disparate businesses, and the same regulations do not make sense across industries.
As we’ve stated before, at Golden Frog we believe the best response to net neutrality’s repeal is a return to the more ideal solution of Open Access. We hope the public and technology community will not be fooled by AT&T’s dishonest attempt, and seek an actual solution to the repeal of net neutrality. There is a solution out there, but an Internet bill of rights is certainly not it.