Internet service providers might have won the battle within the FCC to strike down net neutrality rules, but it came at the cost of public opinion. Telecoms providers dominate this year’s list of most-hated companies, and net neutrality provisions are now exceptionally popular among Republicans and Democrats alike.
So rather than challenge the idea that net neutrality = good, internet providers are trying a bold and very different strategy: gaslighting consumers into thinking they’ve been fans of net neutrality all along.
No effort has been as public or as bold as AT&T’s full-page ad in the New York Times last month, which called for a vague “Internet Bill of Rights,” written by Congress (and AT&T’s army of lobbyists!) that would target internet companies like Google and Facebook just as much as AT&T or Comcast.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group that campaigns for civil liberties on the internet, took issue with AT&T’s framing of the issue. See if you can spot why!
It takes an incredible amount of arrogance for AT&T to take out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for an “Internet Bill of Rights” after spending years effectively waging the most far-reaching lobbying campaign to eliminate every consumer right. In some ways, it should strike you as a type of conquerors decree after successfully laying waste to the legal landscape to remake it in its own image. But AT&T’s goal is abundantly clear: It does not like the laws that exist today to police its conduct in privacy and network neutrality so it wishes to rewrite them while hoping Americans ignore its past actions.
Some examples of those past actions?
It was AT&T that was inserting ads into the traffic of people who use their wifi hotspots in airports. It also used “Carrier IQ,” which gave them the capability to track everything you do, from what websites you visit to what applications you use. It took a class action lawsuitfor the carriers to begin backing down from this idea. And if it was not for Verizon getting into legal trouble with the federal government for use of the undeletable “super cookie,” AT&T would have followed suit to get in on the action.
AT&T has made arguments against being required to operate in a non-discriminatory manner. Which makes sense, since over those years, AT&T has violated net neutrality on multiple occasions. Just last year, the FCC determined that AT&T was engaging in discriminatory, anti-competitive practices by zero-rating its own DIRECTV content while simultaneously charging its competitors unfavorable rates to get the same treatment. While FCC Chairman Ajit Pai halted the investigation and rescinded its findings to eliminate their legal impact on behalf of AT&T and Verizon, the facts are indisputable that AT&T was giving away its own video programming for free in order to drive customers to subscribe to DIRECTV, while stifling any competing video streaming services. The Department of Justice under President Trump shares these concerns when it filed its anti-trust lawsuit against AT&T to block its acquisition of Time Warner content on the grounds that it will harm online video competition.
Oh yeah, and that thing with FaceTime:
Back in 2012, AT&T blocked its customers from using FaceTime, Apple’s video chat app, unless they switched to data plans that were generally more expensive. Not only was this a clear case of blocking based on content for purely business reasons, AT&T tried to claim that doing so didn’t violate net neutrality. This two-faced argument shows just how far the company is willing to go in its double-speak to get away with violating real net neutrality.
There is a grain of truth within what AT&T is saying, namely that the country would be best served by strong net neutrality provisions written into law by Congress and enforced by an enthusiastic regulator. But the EFF makes a strong case that AT&T, with its patchy net neutrality history and millions spent on lobbying Congress and the FCC against net neutrality, probably isn’t the best company to be writing the laws.