AT&T Wants Greater Net Neutrality Rules Clarity

Even though it scored a big victory when net neutrality rules were overturned, this hasn’t seemed to satisfy AT&T’s appetite.  The net neutrality fracas pitted broadband providers like the communications giant against the likes and wishes of Internet companies such as Google and Facebook. The providers, such as AT&T, in the past, have accused the internet companies of seeking unfair advantage from friendly regulators, which resulted in the FCC rules recently overturned.

Now it appears AT&T wants to kick those tech companies while they’re down. In an open letter to Congress this week, AT&T is calling on Congress to clarify the law to eliminate uncertainty for the industry, while also imposing new rules on the tech titans.

AT&T is urging lawmakers to "establish an ‘Internet Bill of Rights’” which would ensure a level playing field and,” that applies to all internet companies and guarantees neutrality, transparency, openness, non-discrimination and privacy protection for all internet users.” The letter appeared as an advertisement in a number of publications, including the Wall Street Journal. This may be a peremptory strike in case lawsuits seeking to overturn all or parts of the FCC’s decision, which are underway, are successful.

What bugs AT&T, and is expressed by its CEO Randall Stephenson, are the many years of conflicting decisions about internet rules handed down by federal regulators as well as federal courts. He indicated that the numerous new advances in technology warrant clearer rules. He added that, "without predictable rules for how the internet works, it will be difficult to meet the demands of these new technology advances.” He cited autonomous cars as just one example of competing technologies requiring clear rules and regulations.

Silicon Valley, in the past, has resisted proposals such as AT&T’s latest broadband broadside, and with good reason. For eight years they not only had a friend in the Oval Office in Barack Obama, but, many observers contend, a Google executive in their pocket: Eric Schmidt, who was an advisor to Obama.  Now the tables have turned, and the internet companies have come under increasing political pressure under the Trump administration.

With their benefactor, Obama, gone, internet companies are facing more political challenges from both parties amid growing concerns over the companies’ size, influence, and perceived lack of accountability. Add to this the microscopic scrutiny it has come under for failing to prevent Russia from buying ads during the election campaign, which just may have been enough to swing the election to Trump and the GOP.

This assault by AT&T finds Silicon Valley in the unusual, and likely the uncomfortable, position of playing defense. Internet companies such as Google have long benefited from relatively lenient government rules aimed at letting the online economy grow for the aforementioned wink and a nod from the grateful (for its huge donations) Democrats and the Obama administration. And even as they were on the wrong side of the net neutrality position, on other issues, such as privacy, they have always prevailed in Congress and remained un-regulated or (some say) under-regulated.

And so, the see-saw turf battle for tech supremacy is joined with the ISPs trying to consolidate their gains, and the internet companies balking. Internet companies worry that the providers-  which effectively control the internet’s pipes - will use their new momentum to barge into online services. They could possibly do this by slowing rival services or speeding up others’ through paid prioritization deals.

What is overlooked amid all this posturing, grandstanding, and hand-wringing by both ISPs and Internet companies, are the behind-the-scenes legislative efforts by the Democrats to force a floor vote in Congress on the FCC’s net neutrality rollback. They hope that by doing so, they will put Republican lawmakers in an unpopular and possibly untenable position to defend in November’s mid-term elections. After all, net neutrality was apparently favored by a majority of Americans, including the all-important millennial vote.

It is ironic that, had then-President Obama sought to codify his net neutrality program into law by presenting it to Congress for a vote back in 2015, there would have been no net neutrality brouhaha now- no need for the protest marches and all the invectives hurled. Instead, he took the easy way out and did it with only his pen by executive order.

This opened the way for President Trump and the GOP to essentially do the same this time. And the ISPs like AT&T-  GOP donors- have supplanted the Democratic-leaning likes of Google and Facebook. So, all the legislative oxygen will be soaked up with these turf wars to the detriment of poor cousin-privacy - which has gone unaddressed for too long. Such is the odious combination of money and politics.

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Editors note: Stan's views are his own, and should not be regarded representing those of the rest of the staff.

Image credit: By Steve Heap/Shutterstock.

Written by: Stan Ward

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him.


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