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All hail AT&T! Champion of the open internet and users' privacy!

Also a bald-faced liar

By Kieren McCarthy, 14 Jul 2017

When AT&T decided at the last minute it was going to join this week's "day of protest" over net neutrality, the reaction ranged from incredulity to bemusement.

Here was one of the corporate beasts that had actively and aggressively campaigned against the introduction of America's net neutrality rules, claiming to be in support of those self-same rules.

AT&T doesn't support the retention of the rules of course; it is wholeheartedly behind the effort by FCC chair Ajit Pai to get rid of them, despite significant public opposition. So why did it put out a press release and have its SVP of legislative affairs Bob Quinn write a blog post about the decision to join in?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, AT&T is doing the exact same thing in California's state capitol.

As legislators vote on a new bill that would install privacy protections for broadband users, AT&T has been lobbying Sacramento saying there's no point introducing the law since it is already legally obliged to follow FTC privacy rules.

However, at the exact same time, AT&T is arguing in court in San Francisco that the opposite is true – that it is exempt from FTC enforcement. So why would the company write down such claims when they are transparently untrue?

The answer unfortunately says a lot about one of the US' most powerful companies and its culture of cynical sneering.

Condemn-nation

It is the same sneering that has taken root in Congress in recent years and made Washington, DC, a focal point for people's anger and frustration. DC politics has always been a snake pit of double dealing and two-faced declarations, but the cancer has spread to the point that corporations – and politicians – have stopped even pretending otherwise.

The depth of partisan politics has made what used to be the balancer to this kind of contemptuous behavior – public condemnation – worthless. Even as people call others out for egregious activity, the waters are purposefully muddied with snide commentary from the other side. There used to be agreement on what was unacceptable – now there is only opposition to whatever the other lot said.

This disturbing sense that long-held social norms are being abandoned was captured in a discussion this week between late-night TV hosts Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.

Referring to the extraordinary news that Donald Trump Jr had taken a meeting with a Russian government lawyer offering damaging information on his father's presidential rival – and then repeatedly lied about it – Oliver noted: "This is something – as long as we live in a world where something means anything. Do we live in a world devoid of consequences now? This seems like a seismic event – but it might be nothing."

Colbert responded: "I'm used to a world where we're divided on things like abortion, or taxes, or government control of healthcare – polarizing issues," Colbert said. "Have we become a nation where colluding with a hostile foreign power to manipulate our election is a left-right thing?"

"I don't know, but the very fact that you just said that sentence out loud shows that we are turbo-fucked!" Oliver responded.

Transparent

While President Trump's possible collusion with Russia is a wildly different topic to net neutrality and user privacy, the willingness of one of the country's largest corporations to transparently lie about its position and understanding of the law without fear of consequence is a direct result of a new level of hyper-cynicism invading the top levels of American society.

When it comes to net neutrality, companies like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T have long had to walk a policy tightrope. On the one hand, they are huge corporations that make their money from direct connections to millions of ordinary citizens. They have reputations and brands to protect and they all want their customers to see them in a positive light.

But on the other hand, net neutrality poses a significant risk to their market power and their profits. If cable companies are forbidden by law from delving into what passes through their direct connections to people's homes, then they risk becoming simple dumb suppliers of data.

Already more and more people are deciding to simply cut out cable companies' content offerings altogether because it is possible for content producers to send their material directly. No more massive bundles of 100 channels just because there is one you want to watch. No more premium bundles just to get ESPN.

Suddenly the cable companies lose all of their negotiating powers – and with it the vast fees they collect. For their entire lives, cable companies have been built on profiting from their control of content. Net neutrality threatens to undermine all that in one fell swoop.

And so the simple truth is that Big Cable will spend however much money it takes to try to make sure that it can still control content. Because without it, its future lies only in the high-cost, low-margin rollout of fiber.

As we have seen with other heavily disrupted markets such as the newspaper industry and the music industry, the internet can flip a decades-old revenue stream almost overnight. And it takes an enormous amount of energy and effort to re-adjust. Big Cable sees what has happened to other industries and is determined to find a way to stop it. Unlike the music and newspaper industries, however, it has two advantages: physical pipes and politics.

Sewers

And as politics has drilled through the gutter and into the sewers, so the cable industry has followed it.

"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," wrote SVP Bob Quinn. "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." He goes on:

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.

There are two aspects of double-speak being pushed by the cable industry right now. One is the "open internet" or, more accurately, what those choose to define as the "open internet." And the second, more policywonkish, is that "Title II is not net neutrality."

The "open internet" is a purposefully vague term that sounds great and is impossible to oppose so long as it is never clearly defined. And so it won't be. You can't expect a lot of politicians to use the term after they are visited by cable lobbyists and after they secure hefty checks for their re-election campaigns.

If net neutrality activists have any sense, they will divert some of their seemingly endless energy into breaking down exactly what "open internet" means and does not mean. This is the sort of the policy work that the FCC was set up to do – so why not make it do it?

Title II

As for the second aspect of double-speak – "Title II is not net neutrality" – this is also a "clever" but purposefully misleading argument. Title II is the part of the law that currently applies to ISPs and which effectively makes them data utilities – the suppliers of data pipes and nothing else.

Water companies can't control everything in their pipes; telephone companies can't control everything over their lines; ISPs can't control everything going through their broadband.

Now, Title II is not in and of itself net neutrality, but it is the means by which the FCC can enforce net neutrality under the law. And the reason the FCC decided to apply Title II was because the cable industry itself kept challenging the FCC's legal right to apply rules that ensured net neutrality.

If you take away Title II, there is no net neutrality unless Congress comes up with a whole new law that accounts for the workings of the modern internet world. So while Title II is not net neutrality per se, it is necessary, right now, for net neutrality to exist.

Big Cable and some think tanks have started pushing on a solution beyond repealing the current Open Internet Order: get Congress to finally enact a new telecom law that recognizes the modern digital world. And the US needs one. The current net neutrality rules rely on 1934 legislation; the likely replacement stems from 1996. They are both horribly out of date.

More worryingly for cable companies is that the new FCC chair Ajit Pai is setting a dangerous precedent by attempting to simply throw out rules that were passed very recently rather than revise or update them. As such, the new FCC chair – who could be in place in just over three years following the 2020 presidential elections – could simply reverse things.

Shoot 'em

The problem however comes back, again, to the destructive, short-term, cynical and hyper-partisan culture that has taken hold in Washington.

As the efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act and so impact the healthcare of the entire nation have made plain, Congress is willing to put more effort into snubbing and beating the other side than it is into finding compromises that can get a majority of politicians on board.

As such, any legislative effort over telecommunications – and with it net neutrality – is likely to fall into the same quagmire and end up creating yet another untouchable topic along with the age-old polarizing topics that Colbert identified: abortion, taxes – he forgot to add guns.

But the one thing that the United States used to support and revere across the nation, regardless of political leanings, was a "straight shooter."

In the Land of the FreeTM, and free speech, everyone can respect what you say – so long as you actually believe it. And, even more so, so long as you stick with it.

And so when AT&T sends a letter [PDF] to the California Congress saying that its bill is not needed because a) the FCC and FTC already have the authority to act, and b) a federal set of rules is needed rather than a "patchwork of state internet privacy rules" – then everyone should feel free to condemn it.

Why? Because AT&T worked incessantly to undermine both the FCC and FTC's authority, and was behind the push that destroyed the federal privacy rules days before they were due to take effect. And because in its appeal [PDF] to the Ninth Circuit, based in California, it states as its second main argument: "AT&T is exempt from FTC enforcement even on an activity-based reading of the statute."

AT&T: Champion of the open internet. Privacy advocate. Bald-faced liar. ®

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