AT&T, a company hellbent on toppling Title II, has apparently changed its spots and wants to promote an “Internet Bill of Rights” – calling for Congress to create new laws guaranteeing an open internet and consumer protection. After all AT&T has done to drag net neutrality through the dirt, the US operator now claims it has suffered at the hands of regulators and wants to clear its name by influencing a new internet regime – one where AT&T is at the core.
Concerns are mounting because with such deep-seeded influence over government decisions, combined with backing from Comcast, AT&T’s plea to Congress could be acted upon sooner than expected – as the industry becomes increasingly desperate for a solution to end the net neutrality debate once and for all.
AT&T was pivotal to the recent repeal of Title II by the FCC, so why the change of heart? This is essentially all about AT&T assisting the reversal of legislation which did not align with its vested interests, then pushing for new laws which will benefit it in the long run – while dressing up its demands as magic answers that are apparently pro-consumer and pro-competition. AT&T will need net neutrality to be policed if it wants to transition DirecTV from satellite delivery to broadband only, for instance.
However, following a blog post from AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson last week, AT&T confessed it does not have the answer and does not know the answer. It wants to spark discussions between internet companies, consumer groups and Congress to begin building a framework for the future of the internet – where AT&T can maintain a position of power to pull the strings in a country where just 18% of consumers have access to competitive pricing for broadband services.
Yet industry players are not convinced. Campaign Director for advocacy group Fight for the Future, Evan Greer, said, “We had an Internet Bill of Rights. It was called Title II and AT&T’s army of lobbyists did everything in their power to burn it down. Internet activists have been warning for months that the big ISPs’ plan has always been to gut the rules at the FCC and then use the ‘crisis’ they created to ram through bad legislation in the name of ‘saving’ net neutrality. That’s the tale it is attempting to spin with this latest announcement, but it comes off as a bit pathetic at this moment, to be honest.”
Gigi Sohn, former counselor to ex-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and now at Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, described Stephenson’s blog post as “the ultimate in hypocrisy”.
Even Burger King has entered the ring, releasing a TV ad raising awareness on net neutrality, in which high-paying customers receive their meals first, despite there being a readily available supply. By ending net neutrality completely and trusting the ISPs to behave well, the FCC makes life far harder for smaller and alternative content or service providers, and in theory lets providers prioritize the applications which pay them most, reducing consumer choice.
Stephenson said in his blog post, which was also published as an advertisement in several major US newspapers, “The commitment of one company is not enough. Congressional action is needed to establish an “Internet Bill of Rights” that applies to all internet companies and guarantees neutrality, transparency, openness, non-discrimination and privacy protection for all internet users.”
“Legislation would not only ensure consumers’ rights are protected, but it would provide consistent rules of the road for all internet companies across all websites, content, devices and applications. In the very near future, technological advances like self-driving cars, remote surgery and augmented reality will demand even greater performance from the internet. Without predictable rules for how the internet works, it will be difficult to meet the demands of these new technology advances,” added Stephenson.
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts voiced his support, “We believe Congress will hopefully now act to put some enduring set of enforceable internet protections that can no longer get revisited and reversed with different administrations.”
It’s worth remembering that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai claims the introduction of net neutrality laws in 2015 drove reduced investment by AT&T and Verizon, although this came at a time when technologies such as software-defined networks have reduced capex. There is a long history of US ISPs failing to meet infrastructure investment promises, a practice which will continue for a long time to come regardless of internet regulations, yet still it serves as a bargaining chip.