Why did AT&T’s Bob Quinn, Senior Executive Vice President of External and Legislative Affairs, pen a blog entitled Why We’re Joining the ‘Day of Action’ in Support of an Open Internet? The answer to that question depends, of course, on who you ask.
On Wednesday companies supporting net neutrality participated in a ‘Day of Action’ by displaying messages urging people to object to the US Federal Communications Commission’s plan to set aside net neutrality rules, which the FCC’s new Chairman Ajit Pai has promised to do. Many over-the-top (OTT) providers like Airbnb, Netflix and Vimeo displayed messages urging site visitors to educate themselves about net neutrality and send a message to the FCC and Congress opposing overturning the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order, which prevents internet service providers (ISPs) from throttling traffic or charging for prioritization.
“This may seem like an anomaly to many people who might question why AT&T is joining with those who have differing viewpoints on how to ensure an open and free internet. But that’s exactly the point – we all agree that an open internet is critical for ensuring freedom of expression and a free flow of ideas and commerce in the United States and around the world,” Quinn writes. “We agree that no company should be allowed to block content or throttle the download speeds of content in a discriminatory manner. So, we are joining this effort because it’s consistent with AT&T’s proud history of championing our customers’ right to an open internet and access to the internet content, applications and devices of their choosing.”
Indeed, it seems to be an about-face for a company that, along with other ISPs, has been actively pursuing legal options for overturning the FCC’s order. According to critics, it’s little more than a PR stunt and some have gone so far as to call it “Machiavellian B.S.” They point to the fact that while AT&T professes to support net neutrality, the company does not support classification of ISPs as Title II common carriers under the Communications Act of 1934, which is how the FCC regulates ISPs and enforces net neutrality.
The other side of the coin
But consider that Twitter apparently censored AT&T’s announcement and you start to understand why AT&T might be working so hard to change some of the rules. Forbes contributor Fred Campbell, Director of Tech Knowledge, a senior policy advisor with Wireless 20/20, and an adjunct professor in the Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law program at the Nebraska College of Law, explains in a blog how Twitter provided a warning message indicating AT&T’s PR statement link “may be unsafe” when he tried to open it from within a tweet.
“This episode of apparent censorship shows what’s wrong with the Obama-era net neutrality rules and why an ISP like AT&T would support a truly open internet,” Campbell writes. “Obama’s rules don’t apply to powerful companies like Twitter, who are free to censor any opinion they don’t like, including the opinions of ISPs.”
The issue of net neutrality is not as cut and dried as many supporters would have us think – it’s complicated, as the saying goes. Do I believe that AT&T has finally seen the light and become an altruistic supporter of all that is good? Um, no. But I also don’t believe the company is an evil monster seeking to dismantle the internet as we know it.
What everyone wants is a level playing field and we don’t have one, at least not in the US. The answer lies in a striking a healthy balance between free-market principles and regulation that protects internet users from abuse by corporate entities, which probably means upholding net neutrality rules while at the same time crafting new legislation designed for the 21st century – legislation that applies to all digital service providers, not just ISPs.