AT&T calls for legislation ending net neutrality debate

By Eric Lieberman

AT&T expressed the need for an “Internet Bill of Rights” overnight Tuesday in an apparent attempt to end the bureaucratic back-and-forth on “net neutrality.”

“Government rules for the internet have been debated for nearly as long as the internet has existed, even before a professor coined the term ‘net neutrality’ 15 years ago,” AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson wrote in a press release. “It is time for Congress to end the debate once and for all, by writing new laws that govern the internet and protect consumers.”

The appeal was directed towards lawmakers because they have longed avoided creating rules surrounding the internet.

“The internet has changed our lives and grown beyond what anyone could have imagined,” Stephenson continued. “And it’s done so, for the most part, with very few—but often changing—rules.”

Going against precedence for the independent agency, the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 mandated new rules to preemptively stop broadband providers from engaging in unfair practices, like the purposeful throttling of competitors’ video-streaming services, among others. The more recent FCC administration, with a three to two Republican balance, reversed that order due to a belief from officials like Chairman Ajit Pai that there already are formidable enforcement mechanisms for anti-competitive business behavior like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The FCC’s repeal plans to restore jurisdictional authority to the FTC, and DOJ when necessary.

Many, like presumably AT&T, worry that if a new executive branch administration with different party loyalties takes power, then that newer decision will be reversed. The three to two makeup is traditional, with the tilt decided mostly by which party is in the White House at the time.

“Because the internet is so critical to everyone,” Stephenson argued, “it’s understandably confusing and a bit concerning when you hear the rules have recently changed, yet again.”

What that legislation should look like to Republicans, Democrats and Independents, not surprisingly, differs.

Fifty senators — 47 Democrats, two Independents, and one lone Republican — have endorsed a legislative move known as the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which would repeal the FCC’s recent repeal. It would effectively make the 2015 FCC order permanent. The CRA’s path forward appears inauspicious, however, leading some to think that its just an attempt to stoke the fiery passions of the public, and others to believe it’s a tactic to force some sort of legislation down the road, even if the CRA isn’t ultimately the chosen one.

Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee introduced her own legislation in December that would codify rules for the internet, but it has thus far received little attention and traction.

The respective bills may be too restrictive or too lax, depending on the perspective of the legislator and company. AT&T doesn’t specify what the intricacies of the bill should be, but it’s calls for Congress to make the situation clearer through such means seems to be its way of trying to show it’s dedicated to customers. Perhaps most importantly, AT&T also expresses its desire for “all internet companies” to be affected by the legislation, as many who debate about a neutral network seem to spare Google, Facebook, Amazon and other “edge providers” from regulatory interference.

“AT&T is committed to an open internet. We don’t block websites. We don’t censor online content. And we don’t throttle, discriminate, or degrade network performance based on content. Period,” said Stephenson. “We have publicly committed to these principles for over 10 years. But 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.”

Fred Campbell, director of Tech Knowledge, said he also supports a legislative approach, but believes that some so far both lack the equal application and go too far.

Legislation should embrace “broader principles of internet governance based on traditional consumer protections, including online privacy, that apply equally to all similarly-situated internet companies,” Campbell said in a statement. “Unfortunately, those in Congress who continue to insist on strict regulation of ISPs that exempt so-called edge providers are ignoring serious consumer concerns about privacy and the growing monopoly power of tech giants in Silicon Valley to control online content.”

Stephenson heavily criticized the FCC under the Obama administration because of the 2015 net neutrality rules, saying he got a really aggressive, threatening letter from the agency. AT&T at one point tried to offer free data through its partnership with DIRECTV, meaning watching programs on the platform would not cost consumers extra money. Essentially, since other ISPs weren’t offering the same perk, AT&T couldn’t, according to the then-FCC’s administration.

“As we explain (again) in the response provided to the Wireless Bureau [of the FCC] today, the video entertainment marketplace is ripe for disruptive change, which is exactly why consumers have enthusiastically embraced Data Free TV in all its competitive forms,” AT&T Senior Vice President of Federal Regulatory Joan Marsh, said in an official statement Thursday. “That enthusiasm has caused competitors to react with additional consumer-friendly video offerings, like the T-Mobile offer announced today.”

AT&T, and several others in the industry, disapproved of net neutrality and how it was defined then. Now, AT&T says it is for net neutrality, but likely in a vastly different way then what the CRA would do and many on the left end of the political spectrum want.

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