AT&T, Whose Ex-CEO Promised To Wreck Net Neutrality, Insists It Won’t Do Anything To Net Neutrality

AT&T is the latest big broadband player to try to suggest that everyone just calm down a little about this whole thing where the FCC destroys net neutrality. And, sure, some of the reports out there and some of the predictions being made about the impending death of net neutrality are fairly exaggerated. But, there are serious concerns, and AT&T’s decision to set up some strawmen to knock over ignores the importance of the issue.

Also, while AT&T ignores this, let’s bring up a bit of history. Because it was former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre who kicked off much of this debate back in 2005 when he declared that he was going to start charging successful internet sites to reach “his” customers over “his” pipes:

“Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes? The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!”

As we pointed out at the time, this statement is incredibly misleading. Everyone — especially those companies — pay for their own bandwidth. And when AT&T’s customers connect to the internet, the reasons it’s worth it to them to pay AT&T for internet access is because they can access the entire internet, and not just the parts that AT&T gets to charge companies double for.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the nonsense AT&T’s top lobbyist, Bob Quinn, posted to AT&T’s blog.

AT&T intends to operate its network the same way AT&T operates its network today: in an open and transparent manner. We will not block websites, we will not throttle or degrade internet traffic based on content, and we will not unfairly discriminate in our treatment of internet traffic (all consistent with the rules that were adopted – and that we supported – in 2010, and the rules in place today).  These commitments are laid out in the broadband details section of AT&T’s main website.  They represent a guarantee to our customers that we will provide service in an open and transparent way.  They have been, and will continue to be, enforceable commitments.  We will not remove that language and we will continue to update any changes we make to our network management practices. Those commitments are not new.  They have been formally in place in one form or another at AT&T since 2005, and we have also publicly disclosed how we manage internet traffic with a version of our current broadband details description on our website since 2010.

If AT&T is making no changes and intends to operate the same way, why has AT&T been pushing so hard against the 2015 rules and for this repeal? And, again, it was the company’s former CEO who made those statements above about how it’s “nuts” that all these internet companies get to ride “his pipes… for free.” Does that really sound like a company that has no intention of doing paid prioritization or fast lanes and slow lanes? Yes, Whitacre is no longer CEO, but the current CEO, Randall Stephenson, worked for Whitacre for many, many years and was his handpicked successor. So it’s not as if AT&T has some new, more enlightened management.

What is different is that AT&T has learned that being so blatant and so upfront about their plan to screw over internet users and websites goes over poorly in the press. So they figured out a while back how to make the behavior sneakier. They can play around with interconnection. They can dabble in zero rating. And, as some will no doubt point out, the 2015 open internet order did notexplicitly deal with either of these loopholes (which was one of our biggest complaints with the order). But it did signal an FCC that wouldn’t allow such bad actions (which is why interconnection fights all disappeared almost within seconds of the order being approved).

In short: AT&T will seek to use whatever power it can to extract rents from the internet. Remember, this is a company that has been fined over and over and over again by the FCC for a variety of bad, anti-consumer behavior. And, remember, some of those fines (for SMS cramming) were under Title II. Do we magically think that AT&T is going to suddenly stop fucking over its users once the FCC has publicly stated “do whatever the fuck you want, we no longer care.”

We not only have enforceable commitments on blocking, throttling and discrimination on our own network, we also have incentives to ensure that other ISPs adhere to these same open internet principles. Take, for example, DIRECTV NOW, our over-the-top video service that travels over broadband connections whether owned by AT&T or someone else. We depend on an open internet for this service, and we accordingly conduct ourselves – and will continue to conduct ourselves – in the same manner we expect to be treated when we rely on the infrastructure of others to provide services to our customers.

This sounds nice, doesn’t it? Except, should we forget that the previous FCC actually found that AT&T abused its relationship with DirecTV in a way that violated its net neutrality rules? I mean, does Quinn just hope that people reading his blog post don’t remember what happened less than a year ago?

Besides, AT&T knows damn well that, as large as it is, it can easily negotiate good terms for competitors to carry DirecTV Now, while at the same time it has the leverage to fuck over smaller competitors.

The day after the FCC’s decision, consumers are going to see no changes to how their internet works. Everyone will be able to access their favorite websites; no one’s traffic will be throttled based on content; and the consumer internet is going to work the same way it did the day before the FCC order is adopted.

Well, sure. The day after the FCC’s decision nothing is going to change because AT&T knows that a bunch of lawsuits will be filed, and it’s not stupid enough to do something so blatant that it will be used as fodder in that lawsuit. It’ll wait. And if the rules are upheld, you’ll then suddenly start to notice little changes here and there. And, frequently, they’ll be couched and framed in ways to look supportive of the consumer, rather than anti-consumer. They’ll be things like zero rating, where AT&T will pretend that it’s giving you “free data” even though it’s really only “free” from the arbitrarily low and onerous caps that it sets itself.

Consumers will, however, see enormous benefits from the FCC’s actions. Utility regulation over broadband can only inhibit incentives for network investment.

They keep saying this, but this is hogwash. Again, the net neutrality rules was not “utility regulation.” It was a basic framework that said you can’t fuck over users. It was only a burden if your intent was to fuck over users. So if AT&T claims it was a burden… it was because it intended to fuck over users.

By lifting that cloud here, the FCC will restore the bi-partisan, light-touch regulatory structure that made the United States the world leader in mobile broadband infrastructure.

Hogwash. This is the same AT&T that bid billions last year under Title II in the big FCC spectrum auction. If it really felt hamstrung over the rules, why would it have invested so much in that spectrum?

The doomsayers, of course, have a different view, conspicuously colored by a litany of hypotheticals and hyperbole, and generally devoid of facts. Some are calling this the death of the internet as we know it. The doomsayers, however, have been making these and similar dire predictions for years. In 2010, in response to the first FCC Open Internet rules, Free Press warned:

“These rules don’t do enough to stop the phone and cable companies from dividing the Internet into fast and slow lanes, and they fail to protect wireless users from discrimination. No longer can you get to the same Internet via your mobile device as you can via your laptop. The rules pave the way for AT&T to block your access to third-party applications and to require you to use its own preferred applications.”

Of course, none of those predictions ever came true then and they won’t come true after the FCC acts here either. There will be a lot of talk over the next two weeks on what the FCC’s net neutrality order means. The truth is that, at first, no one will notice a difference in how their internet works. But when the removal of utility regulation translates into greater broadband investment and increased innovation on the internet…well, everyone will eventually notice that.

Actually… the one who is “devoid of facts” here is Bob Quinn at AT&T. Because under those rules, what Free Press predicted did happen. Remember when AT&T blocked Google Hangouts on mobile? Or when it blocked Facetime? Both of those happened under the weak 2010 rules, just like Free Press predicted.

And, I should note, this seems like another reason not to trust AT&T here. It’s directly denying it had done the very thing… it did. I know in this age of alternative facts some powerful folks believe that if you just say you didn’t do the thing you absolutely did, many people will believe that you never actually did it. But the facts are here.

Furthermore, AT&T’s statement is even more disingenuous, because the 2010 rules were fought over in court for many years, which again was a reason why AT&T and others didn’t go all out in implementing really bad behavior, so as not to give an assist to the courts.

Either way, AT&T’s statement is extremely misleading, ignores significant history from AT&T in both what its execs have said it intends to do and the company’s actual actions. AT&T’s Bob Quinn is spewing alternative facts here, and the public shouldn’t accept his lies.

Written by Mike Masnick for TechDirt. View our archive of TechDirt articles.

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