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AT&T’s Push For A Fake Net Neutrality Law Begins In Earnest

AT&T wants an "internet bill of rights" that will enshrine a world without net neutrality.

Karl Bode

Image: Shutterstock

AT&T apparently thinks you’re stupid.

After successfully lobbying to kill net neutrality and broadband privacy protections, the company this week took out a full page ad (embedded below) in papers ranging from the New York Times to the Washington Post. In it, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson insists AT&T is so concerned about consumer welfare, it’s backing a new effort for an “internet bill of rights.”

Despite spending millions on lobbying the government to kill hugely popular consumer protections last year, Stephenson insists AT&T is “committed to an open internet” and has “publicly committed” itself to the concept for the last decade.

But “the commitment of one company is not enough,” AT&T insists. As such, the company says it’s pushing hard for a “legislative solution” it claims will put the multi-year debate over net neutrality to rest once and for all.

“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,” Stephenson proclaimed.

What’s AT&T really up to here? As we’ve noted previously, ISPs are nervous that the FCC’s net neutrality repeal rests on shaky legal footing after the agency ignored the experts, ignored objective data, and turned a blind eye to rampant comment fraud during the net neutrality open comment period as it rushed to repeal the rules.

As such, they’ve directed their loyal allies in Congress (like Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn) to push net neutrality legislation in name only. These bills, like Blackburn’s misleadingly-named "Open Internet Preservation Act,” are an attempt to pass flimsy, loophole-filled rules that would pre-empt any efforts to restore tougher rules down the road.

This is the same company that also charged broadband subscribers more money simply to protect their own privacy

Blackburn's proposed law bans behaviors ISPs were never interested in (like the outright blocking of websites), but avoids doing anything about the numerous areas where net neutrality violations actually occur—from usage caps, overage fees and “zero rating,” to efforts to charge for “paid prioritization” (letting one company buy an unfair network advantage over another.)

That said, AT&T is the very last company that should be leading the conversation on consumer welfare online.

In just the last few years, the company has been fined $18.6 million for helping rip off programs for the hearing impaired; fined $10.4 million for ripping off a program for low-income families; and fined $105 million for helping "crammers" by intentionally making fraudulent charges more difficult to see on customer bills.

This is the same company that also charged broadband subscribers more money simply to protect their own privacy, was caught ignoring drug dealers running a directory assistance scam, and has repeatedly been busted violating net neutrality.

AT&T’s goal here is twofold. One, it wants Congress to pass a fake net neutrality law to derail efforts to restore the FCC’s 2015 rules. It’s also eager to prevent the FCC or Congress from passing new rules should the repeal survive court challenges. But AT&T’s also eager to have government regulate the content and internet services companies it’s planning to compete with as it tried to gain regulatory approval of its $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner.

AT&T, like Verizon, are interested in pivoting from stodgy, turf-protecting telecom operators to sexy new Millennial-focused advertising behemoths. As such, its unsurprisingly lobbied to reduce regulatory oversight of itself, while expanding regulatory oversight of competitors like Google, Facebook, and Netflix.

Consumer advocates all-too-familiar with AT&T’s behavior find the company’s sudden dedication to consumer welfare laughable.

“It would be a lot easier to take AT&T at their word if they hadn't spent more than $16 million last year alone lobbying to kill net neutrality and privacy protections for Internet users,” said Evan Greer, an activist with the digital rights group Fight for the Future. “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.”

AT&T has an uphill climb being taken seriously on this subject.

“As soon as AT&T wants to stop lobbying against net neutrality, broadband privacy and the other rights it’s worked to kill via the Trump FCC and this Congress, maybe people will stop laughing at desperate tactics like this,” concurred Matt Wood, Action Fund Policy Director for the consumer group Free Press.

“For now, all we can do is point out the company’s audacity in pretending that this hyper-partisan Congress can step in to fill the void of the Net Neutrality repeal by writing a new law tailor-made for AT&T,” Wood added.

The company’s attempt to pass Blackburn’s legislation has seen very little traction, and Senate Democrats, eager to use net neutrality as a wedge issue ahead of the looming midterms, aren’t likely to sign off any any flimsy proposals that would put that strategy at risk. They’re instead focusing on reversing the repeal either via lawsuit or the Congressional Review Act.

But Blackburn’s is likely only the first fake net neutrality law you’ll see proposed this year, as ISPs desperately try to grab a beachhead in their frontal assault on consumer welfare. AT&T’s missive comes as loyal lawmakers and telecom lobbying organizations like US Telecom also push for a “legislative solution” that isn’t, for a problem they themselves created.

As AT&T’s morning missive makes clear, a core part of this strategy clearly involves assuming the public is too stupid to notice the charade.