AT&T CEO’s net neutrality plan calls for regulation of websites
AT&T is lobbying Congress for a net neutrality law that isn't nearly as strict as the rules just recently repealed by the Federal Communications Commission. But the most notable aspect of AT&T's rather vague proposal is that the telco wants this law to apply to website operators in addition to Internet service providers.
An open letter from AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson pats the telco on the back for its commitment to net neutrality.
AT&T supports bans on blocking and throttling, but not paid prioritization or data cap exemptions. (AT&T allows its own video services to stream on its mobile network without counting against data caps, but it charges other online companies for the same data cap exemptions. This doesn't count as discrimination in AT&T's view.)
"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," Stephenson wrote.
But what about other companies that aren't as virtuous as AT&T says it is? Stephenson explains:
[T]he 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.
Such 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," he wrote.
A lobby group for dozens of websites including Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter criticized AT&T's proposal.
"It is impossible to believe that AT&T is serious when they have such a long track record opposing consumer protections like net neutrality," the Internet Association said in a statement to Ars. "We support strong, enforceable net neutrality rules, which were consumer protections on the books until AT&T and their allies had their way."
AT&T sued the FCC in 2015 in an attempt to overturn net neutrality rules but lost in court. AT&T ended up winning anyway, as the FCC's new Republican leadership, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, voted to repeal the rules in December.
Broadband industry strategy
Websites and ISPs have generally been regulated in different ways because they play fundamentally different roles in consumer access to the Internet. ISPs control a user's entire connection to the Internet and could grant or deny access to websites as they please. Many ISPs face little or no competition in their regional markets. Normal market forces thus don't do much to prevent bad behavior by ISPs—the industry is routinely ranked at or near the bottom of customer satisfaction studies.
Websites, on the other hand, can choose what is and isn't allowed on their own platforms, but they can't prevent consumers from visiting other websites. That doesn't mean companies like Google don't wield significant power, but they also aren't unregulated. Online platforms are overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, which promotes consumer protection and tries to prevent anticompetitive business practices.
The FCC's 2015 net neutrality rules were tailored to meet the specific threats to Internet openness that ISPs can pose, and they were meant to protect both consumers and websites from discrimination by ISPs.
AT&T didn't explain exactly how rules against blocking, throttling, and discrimination should apply to websites. But AT&T's call for websites to face the same rules as ISPs continues a strategy employed by the broadband industry and Republicans.
ISPs and their Republican friends in government argue that it's unfair for the network operators to face stricter rules than online platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. This argument was used by broadband lobbyists and Republicans when Congress eliminated consumer broadband privacy protections last year, and Pai used it to argue for his repeal of net neutrality rules last month.
Twitter blocking certain tweets or app stores rejecting apps are greater threats to the open Internet than ISPs blocking or throttling websites, Pai said at the time.
"These are very real, actual threats to an open Internet—coming from the very entities that claim to support it," Pai said.
Pai dismissed examples of ISPs discriminating against Internet content, such as Comcast throttling BitTorrent or AT&T blocking FaceTime. The idea of ISPs interfering with Internet traffic is merely a "hypothetical harm," his repeal proposal claimed.
Pai's FCC also let AT&T off the hook for favoring its own video content on its mobile network. When led by Democrat Tom Wheeler, the FCC said AT&T's implementation of paid data cap exemptions violated net neutrality. But the FCC rescinded its finding shortly after President Donald Trump appointed Pai as chairman.
Movement in Congress
AT&T's call for a law comes as Democrats and Republicans pitch competing net neutrality proposals. Democrats are trying to get enough votes to reverse the FCC's repeal and fully restore the net neutrality rules. That would reinstate bans on blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, as well as numerous other consumer protections.
Republicans are pushing an "Open Internet Preservation Act" that would ban blocking and throttling but allow ISPs to create paid fast lanes. The Republican bill would also prohibit the FCC from imposing stricter regulations on broadband providers and prohibit state governments from enacting their own net neutrality laws.
AT&T promises that it will be heavily involved in the legislative process.
"[W]e intend to work with Congress, other Internet companies and consumer groups in the coming months to push for an 'Internet Bill of Rights' that permanently protects the open Internet for all users and encourages continued investment for the next generation of Internet innovation," Stephenson wrote.