AT&T’s ‘Internet Bill of Rights’ idea is just a power play against Google and Facebook

AT&T has placed a few full-page ads explaining that it is pro-net neutrality, it has always been pro-net neutrality and that Congress once and for all should enshrine net neutrality principles in law.

No, it’s not opposite day. This is a clever play by AT&T aimed not at protecting users, but kneecapping edge providers like Facebook and Google. It’s like the fox calling for a henhouse bill of rights.

First, the idea that AT&T is in favor of net neutrality — the net neutrality we all had and enjoyed — is laughable.

The company fought tooth and nail against the 2015 rules while they were being prepared, fought them while they were in force and fought for their rollback and replacement with the new, weaker ones. It fought against municipal broadband, pushed the limits of what constitutes a violation of net neutrality and, of course, the blockage of FaceTime on its network is one of the textbook cases of why we need it in the first place.

Gigi Sohn, once former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s counselor, and now among other things a Mozilla Tech Policy Fellow, isn’t having it. “They’ve done everything in their power to undermine consumer protections, competition, municipal broadband… it’s hypocrisy to the tenth degree,” she told me.

But let’s just hear what AT&T has to say.

“Courts have overturned regulatory decisions. Regulators have reversed their predecessors… it’s understandably confusing and a bit concerning when you hear the rules have recently changed, yet again,” writes chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson, who fails to mention that his company has been deeply involved in those changes, spending lavishly on lawyers, lobbyists and the elections of officials friendly to the company.

“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,” he continues. “Period.”

In fact, an FCC report issued early last year (just before inauguration day) concluded that “AT&T offers Sponsored Data to third-party content providers at terms and conditions that are effectively less favorable than those it offers to its affiliate, DirecTV.” And of course there’s the FaceTime thing. And the fact that paid prioritization isn’t mentioned by AT&T as a bad thing (it’s not “based on content” if it’s based on whose content it is).

“But the commitment of one company is not enough,” Stephenson writes, as if the company’s commitment was not only real, but the only one extant. “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.”

The privacy protections AT&T lobbied to undermine? Never mind. Leaving aside that AT&T is the last company on earth we should listen to when it comes to such a theoretical Congressional action, this paragraph is where the real sleight of hand happens. Three little words:

“All internet companies.”

Tarring the fortunate ones

These broadband providers aren’t dumb. They’ve been playing the game for a long time now, and it’s pretty clear that regulators are coming for them sooner or later — the last two years were just a preview, and the recent victory in the FCC possibly a short-lived one.

They’ve been resigned to that fate for a long time. But what really gets their goat is the runaway success of edge providers — that is to say, internet companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and so on. The idea that these major companies, which handle all this personal data and are so critical to users of the web, have escaped serious regulation while ISPs are closely watched, this rankles the latter group to their core.

The threat of edge providers is a great way to distract from the threat of broadband providers — which is why it gets brought up so much. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai himself wrote in an op-ed last year:

Edge providers are a much bigger actual threat to an open Internet than broadband providers, especially when it comes to discrimination on the basis of viewpoint. They might cloak their advocacy in the public interest, but the real interest of these Internet giants is in using the regulatory process to cement their dominance in the Internet economy.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Pai adopted this argument, so long in use by the broadband companies (Sohn called AT&T “Ajit Pai’s chief strategists”). But as I and others have pointed out again and again, the whole thing is a colossal red herring.

What AT&T is trying to do here is put all internet companies in the same bag, bringing down regulations on a hated rival (edge providers) just after escaping the regulations placed on its own industry. And the idea of shared net neutrality rules is the bait.

“This is absolutely nothing new,” Sohn told me. “For the last seven or eight years, [ISPs] have been saying, ‘Net neutrality? But what about these guys?’ But as powerful as Google and Amazon and Facebook are, they don’t provide access to the internet. They provide their services on the internet.”

The fundamental difference between these industries is plain for anyone to see. Do you regulate farms and grocery stores the same? Of course not. What about cars and gas stations? Don’t be ridiculous. Same for phone companies and the companies that use phones, and internet providers and companies that use the internet to provide things. These are overlapping, but very distinct, magisteria.

A Congressional solution may be required, but don’t forget that the people in Congress AT&T is working with are likely the same ones who gave the company a green light to collect personal information last year. The prospect of Congress rolling back the FCC’s recent decision doesn’t sound quite so sweet, I’m guessing, since Stephenson doesn’t mention it at all.

The sentiment of AT&T’s suggestion is hollow, and the logic is absent. AT&T hasn’t earned your trust, let alone the benefit of the doubt. Don’t take this palaver seriously.