Telecom Using Veterans As Props To Demonize California's New Net Neutrality Law

from the scare-mongering-incorporated dept

Efforts by industry and captured regulators to demonize California's net neutrality law have begun in earnest.

Last week, AT&T lied that it had been forced to stop giving its customers "free data" nationwide because of the new law. Of course, that's not true. In reality, the law (slightly tougher than the FCC rules AT&T lobbied to kill) prevents AT&T from abusing its bullshit monthly usage caps. Under the law, AT&T can no longer abuse usage caps to give its own streaming services an unfair advantage over competitors like Netflix (which it had been doing for several years), nor can it let deep-pocketed companies buy an unfair advantage on AT&T's network (something AT&T called "sponsored data").

Despite the industry's attempts to frame this so-called "zero rating" as akin to "free data," that's not accurate, and numerous experts say blocking such efforts is a good thing for consumers and competitors alike (for many reasons). And it's not that AT&T was forced to stop offering "free data," so much as the law stops AT&T from erecting artificial network limits, then exploiting those pointless restrictions to give itself (and deep-pocketed competitors) an unfair advantage in online competition.

Because the broadband industry's gamesmanship with zero rating is hard for non-technical (or outright dumb) people to understand, it's easy to confuse folks. Enter FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who this week falsely tried to claim California's new net neutrality law would soon be "cutting off free health services" from veterans nationwide:

Would you be surprised to learn that absolutely nothing Carr claims here is true? Nobody is pulling video health care from veterans. It will never happen. Nobody's even "sounding the alarm," really. The VA is just doing competent due diligence to make sure they're in compliance with a new law.

Carr was riffing off a story in Politico noting that the VA is simply asking if their existing telehealth services will run afoul of California's net neutrality restrictions. The VA's correspondence was leaked by an anonymous party (wink!) Politico wouldn't reveal:

"POLITICO received a copy of the correspondence on the condition that it not identify the parties involved in the communication."

Of concern is the VA's Video Connect App, which provides veterans with access to video health services. The service is technically "zero rated" (doesn't count against a user's wireless caps), and while that's technically against the law, nobody in California is going to come along and sever veteran access to the app. Any claim to the contrary is scare mongering. Everybody involved here will find an easy workaround (more on that later) that makes everybody happy, because nobody wants to harm veterans.

I should note I'll be pretty surprised if the "most progressive state in the nation" even bothers to enforce the state's new net neutrality law on any consistent basis when it comes to actual harms. So the idea that California's going to suddenly start kicking veterans around as one of its first acts under this law (in the process giving ammunition to industry) is fairly laughable. Also: the claim this would occur nationally is just outright false. There's nothing stopping ISPs from zero rating this service in every state but California, given there's no federal restrictions on the practice due to relentless telecom industry lobbying.

Way more importantly to note, this is a non-issue with a simple solution. As Stanford Professor Barbara Van Schewick points out in a blog post, usage caps are bullshit constructs in the first place. If you understand that usage caps are pointless cash grabs by industry that serve no real technical purpose, you should also understand that exempting a service from those arbitrary caps is rather meaningless.

You should also understand there's any number of simple alternatives to help veterans get discounted access to this app that don't involve mucking about with monthly usage caps, confusing overage fees, or zero rating. Including, but not limited to offering a subsidy off of a veteran's overall bandwidth bill, or simply not charging so much money in the first place:

"Carriers can also lower the cost of unlimited plans for everyone so people can use the internet in the way that’s best for them. That’s the real solution, not allowing ISPs to pick and choose what apps and what segment of the population gets relief from low data caps.

Congress understands that, which is why it recently passed the Emergency Broadband Benefit that provides $50 a month to households with low incomes so they can do all the things they need to do online."

The broadband industry and Brendan Carr know this. They know California regulators won't bring the hammer down on the VA. They also know there's ample workarounds that can be struck so this will never become an actual problem (from what I hear that's already underway). But the telecom industry is on the hunt to try and find ways to demonize popular, pro-consumer, pro-competition rules of the road. So "somebody" (read: telecom companies or any one of their policy tendrils) leaked the VA's questions to Politico, Carr hops on board with a helpful quote designed to mislead, and Politico runs with it. Without providing any context by actual subject experts like Van Schewick who would have quickly explained that this was all an easily-remedied non-issue.

It of course didn't take long for the bogus claim to pop up at other industry-friendly outlets like Fox, which quickly jumped on board to amplify the false claims further under the pretense it was a "scoop":

The Fox story on this whole manufactured controversy is particularly amusing. In part because it provides absolutely no context informing readers that this is a non-issue with a trivial workaround. Nor do the reporters even try to contact actual subject experts. Instead, they just lazily quote former Ajit Pai "advisor" Nathan Leamer (now doing K street PR work for the GOP and industry) as some kind of objective expert. Leamer in turn is allowed to just spread falsehoods about how the Biden DOJ's decision to drop its dumb lawsuit against California somehow creates "regulatory uncertainty":

"Last month, the Department of Justice dropped a case against California that prevented the state from implementing net neutrality. The DOJ's decision to drop the case surprised many telecom insiders.

“This is another example of the regulatory uncertainty for wireless and tech industries as a whole,” Nathan Leamer, vice president at Targeted Victory, a public affairs firm, told FOX Business. “There was a lot of frustration that Biden’s DOJ dropped the suit in a heel turn."

This entire quote is nonsense. Biden's move surprised absolutely nobody, anywhere (and if you were surprised, you're not a "telecom insider"). And the only people "frustrated" that the DOJ backed away from Trump and Bill Barr's dumb lawsuit against California (simply for trying to protect broadband consumers) are telecom giants. Also, I'd be curious if A. "Targeted Victory" (also employed by Facebook) has telecom giants as clients, and if B. work for those clients ever involves working with captured regulators and allied media outlets to generate bogus controversies to attack policies and laws the industry doesn't like.

As the telecom sector and guys like Leamer and Carr were busy pushing this bogus claim at favorable news outlets, other telecom-backed think tanks were busy spreading the same message:

From there, it wasn't long before the bullshit claim, pushed heavily again by Carr, pops up in the mouths of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, showcasing how this whole thing was coordinated from the start:

See how this all works yet? It's not as hard to manufacture a controversy as you might think. Especially when the US press is eager to help.

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Filed Under: brendan carr, california, net neutrality, va, veterans, zero rating
Companies: at&t

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  • icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 26 Mar 2021 @ 5:55am

    Rupert Murdoch

    See how this all works yet? It's not as hard to manufacture a controversy as you might think. Especially when the US press is eager to help.

    Fox Business, Wall Street Journal: All of the press in question is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Why report the news when you can distort the news?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DocGerbil100 (profile), 26 Mar 2021 @ 6:09am

    Additionally to what's mentioned in the article, the TD article from a few days back indicates that it's only if one service is prioritised over a competitor (for whatever reason) that the net neutrality rules come into play.

    This suggests to me that - surely? - there's nothing at all stopping ISPs from exempting all recognisable customer healthcare services, as a singular field, from those customer data caps.

    It's not like it would cost them a massive amount. If they honestly gave a damn about anyone but themselves, they'd do this without even having to be asked.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 26 Mar 2021 @ 8:02am


      Net neutrality at its most basic means that every packet is treated equally regardless of its source or destination. The way in which this is commonly abused is by an ISP favouring its own services or those of a paid collaborator over competitors, but strictly speaking you don't need that element to violate net neutrality.

      The real question is why hard bandwidth caps are in play. Where I am in Spain, there is no bandwidth cap on terrestrial broadband. On mobile, if I exceed the cap, the result is that my data connection gets dropped to a lower speed until the next billing cycle. The idea that you have a certain amount of bandwidth usage then you either get cut off or have to pay extortionate charges seems to be a uniquely American thing in my experience - as is the idea that net neutrality is even remotely controversial.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        DocGerbil100 (profile), 26 Mar 2021 @ 9:04am

        Re: Re:

        Hi, there. :)

        Here in the UK, bandwidth caps are theoretically still a thing on some services. At the moment, all the big providers have suspended their data caps because of the pandemic, but it's a fair guess that those caps will be back, as soon as the ISPs can get away with it.

        On higher tier fixed-line services, Unlimited data is available -- and since we have trading standards laws that are actually fit for purpose, Unlimited usually means unlimited, providing data usage isn't constantly running to appreciable fractions of a petabyte.

        Net neutrality isn't controversial for anyone here, mainly because we have something of a relatively competitive market and a much better communications regulator. Since our ISPs can't get away with as much bad behaviour as US ISPs anyway, there's far less incentive for them to attack the rules.

        Regarding my earlier post, now that I've looked for it, it turns out I'm actually referring to an Ars Technica article, not a TD one. My bad. Here's a choice quote (slightly edited for clarity):

        California's net neutrality law allows zero-rating when it's implemented in a neutral manner. Specifically, the law bans "zero-rating in exchange for consideration, monetary or otherwise, from a third party," and bans "zero-rating some Internet content, applications, services, or devices in a category of Internet content, applications, services, or devices, but not the entire category."

        The law further states that "[z]ero-rating Internet traffic in application-agnostic ways shall not be a violation... provided that no consideration, monetary or otherwise, is provided by any third party in exchange for the Internet service provider's decision whether to zero-rate traffic."

        AT&T could choose a category of content, such as streaming video, and exempt everything in that category from its data caps. AT&T wouldn't be able to charge other video providers for the zero-rating, but providing such a perk to customers could help AT&T earn more revenue by signing up new customers and retaining existing ones who care about the perk.

        T-Mobile used to do something similar when it zero-rated video and music applications without seeking payments from the video and music providers, albeit with some technical requirements that online services had to meet to qualify for the zero-rating.

        (Update: T-Mobile still offers the music and video zero-rating, and said that it does not violate the California law because it zero-rates the entire category and doesn't charge online service providers for the data cap exemptions.)"

        Link: -free-data/

        If T-Mobile is already doing an identical thing for another class of service, without any apparent regulatory issues, AT&T has absolutely no excuse. It's entire claim is pure fraud.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 26 Mar 2021 @ 7:20am

    Someone want to have some fun??

    Ask these talking heads why our Veterans can't have in person visits?
    Why are they given care less than members of Congress enjoy?
    If they are so important why are their families needing food banks, living in deplorable conditions, & exposed to toxins?
    Why are they not vaccinated against the pandemic yet Congress is?
    They defend our freedoms, they pay lip service to it, but that never does anything to make their lives better.

    Why does anyone want to listen to a company a senior citizen had to spend $10K to run an ad to get better service in a populous city?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 26 Mar 2021 @ 7:36am

    Missing the real point as ever. The argument should not be about whether or not protecting net neutrality places certain vital services at risk because bandwidth caps might be triggered. The real question is why bandwidth caps exist, while much of the rest of the developed world don't have them (while still protecting net neutrality, of course).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Mar 2021 @ 8:24am

    And those same telecom companies who are so about helping vets will quickly cut them off if they miss even one bill (or go over their limit on their unlimited plan. Does zero rated exclude you from being throttled? I doubt it). Just like they did with firefighters and first California.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bloof (profile), 26 Mar 2021 @ 8:40am

    If it wasn't for California's net neutrality protections. AT&T would be giving every person in america free unlimited access to pictures of cute puppies and kittens. Those greedy west coast elites are the reason you cannot enjoy cute little Waggles McAdorafluff, and are making baby Jesus cry.

    *Offer only valid for americans willing to pay for the $500 per month Kittenpup Plus value plan.

    ** Unlimited until kitten caps are exceeded then there's a $50 surcharge per image.

    *** AT&T Jesus may differ from the Jesus found in the bible. Preventing him from crying costs an additional $20 a month.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Mar 2021 @ 11:27am

    is there any other country apart from the USA that has a complete bunch of cunts in charge of companies, who manage to spin whatever crap they want, knowing full well it's nothing but lies, but still manage to get away with it, all in the name of being made to act in a better and proper manner towards customers?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 26 Mar 2021 @ 11:42am

    'Keep looking at the props, stop looking at how we treat them.'

    Boy it sure would be awkward if someone were to point out to the tools ripping into net neutrality law for 'stealing the joy and internet access from veterans!' that not too long ago Verizon throttled the cellular connection of firefighters in California, while they were dealing with massive forest fires, and when called on it by the firefighters the company's first response was to try to strongarm them into paying more for a 'better' plan.

    'Look at what the california law might do/enable us to do' becomes crystal clear as nothing more than a dishonest argument when you compare it to what the companies involved have already done, and the utter contempt they have shown to their customers, up to and including those they try to use as props to hide behind like the gutless cowards they are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 26 Mar 2021 @ 12:16pm

    Just to ask

    What is the difference between those that USED to own the Tier1 section of the net, and NOW with these Corps owning all of it, and then thinking of restricting anything Out of those areas they OWN, insted of sharing the Whole thing?
    I would really like the FCC to show Proof that the Whole backbone has been updated and upgraded.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That Anonymous Coward (profile), 26 Mar 2021 @ 4:22pm

      Re: Just to ask

      Don't send the FCC to check...
      Have you seen their broadband map?
      We all have access to gigspeed everywhere from multiple providers*!

      *reality might differ... by a lot.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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