from the oh-shut-the-fuck-up dept
I regret to inform you that AT&T is at it again. For over a decade now, the company has had a weird infatuation with Google. It seems to truly hate Google and has long decided that anything bad for Google must be good for AT&T. Because Google was an early supporter of net neutrality — a concept that AT&T (stupidly and incorrectly) seems to think is an existential threat to its own business plans of coming up with sneaky ways to spy on you and charge you more — over a decade ago, AT&T started floating the lame idea that if it’s to be held to “net neutrality” Google ought to be held to “search neutrality.” Of course, there’s a problem with that: there’s no such thing as “search neutrality” because the whole point of search is to rank results for you. A “neutral” search would be a useless search that ranks nothing.
However, now that the FCC (who knows better) caved in to the bumptious Trump demands to reinterpret Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, AT&T stupidly (and self-destructively) has decided that it’s going to comment against Section 230. AT&T top lobbyist Joan Marsh put up a truly spectacularly dumb blog post about how this is “the neutrality debate we need to have” (i.e., about Google and Facebook’s treatment of content, rather than AT&T’s treatment of network connections):
This Wednesday, the FCC will take comments on NTIA’s petition on reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a provision enacted in 1996 to address a narrow set of concerns involving nascent internet platforms that then played only a marginal role in American life. The purpose of the provision made sense at that moment in internet history: Section 230 sought to insulate the newly emerging technology companies from liability risks they might otherwise face if they were deemed a publisher or speaker in the traditional sense.
First off, this is bullshit. Section 230 was not written to “address a narrow set of concerns involving nascent internet platforms that then played only a marginal role…” It was a key aspect of figuring out how the internet would work and was, in fact, driven by the concerns of various ISPs who realized that it would create massive problems if they were held liable for actions of their users on the network. This includes AT&T, though at the time AT&T in whatever form you might consider it, since the modern AT&T is really the remains of different telco companies that purchased AT&T.
Congress had no way to foresee a quarter century ago that this provision, intended to protect struggling startups at the dawn of the internet, would ultimately be wielded by the largest and most powerful companies in the world as a shield not just from unfair and frivolous lawsuits, but from what many consider to be every day responsibilities.
This is bullshit and wrong. Both authors of Section 230 have said exactly the opposite — that Section 230 was written with the recognition of how important the internet would be and that it’s working as intended. Marsh is rewriting history.
Since that time, America’s tech platforms have grown from their humble beginnings into the most powerful forces in the global economy today. Five tech giants (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google) alone make up about 25% of the S&P 500 with valuations growing, even in a pandemic.
Marsh leaves out that AT&T itself is worth over $200 billion. It’s not exactly a slouch. And when you combine it with Verizon, Comcast and others, it also represents quite a powerhouse. One that has spent the last decade especially fighting back against any form of regulatory guidelines that impact how it runs its business. It has pressured the FCC to remove pretty much all of its authority over the company. So it’s truly hypocritical for it to suddenly be claiming that the FCC needs to take a stand and regulate Google and Facebook.
Meanwhile, it’s always been clear that AT&T has been among the absolute worst companies regarding its treatment of consumers. AT&T is famous for jacking up prices, including hidden fees, spying on its users (or wanting them to pay more for their privacy) and handing data over to the NSA freely. Google offers most of its key services for free, has built a reputation around giving users much more control over privacy, and has fought legally against NSA attempts to collect its data. And if you look at general consumer satisfaction surveys it shows. 90% of the public likes what they get from Google. Meanwhile AT&T remains one of the most hated companies in America.
The decisions these companies make on a daily basis – which search results to rank first, which products to promote, which news stories to feature, and which third parties they will deal with and on what terms – shape virtually every aspect of America’s economic, social and political life.
What? This is… just a myth. Yes, ranking well in search can help companies, but (1) it’s not everything and (2) the way you rank well in search is by… actually doing a good job in providing people what they need. Unlike AT&T.
Yet those decisions are shrouded in obscurity, away from public view, in a world where black-box algorithms and non-negotiable terms pick winners and losers in every sphere of public life.
If Google was bad at this, then people would use other search engines. But they don’t. Because Google tends to give good results. Why is AT&T mad about that?
In comments this Wednesday, AT&T will join the growing consensus of voices concluding that online platforms should be more accountable for, and more transparent about, the decisions they control that fundamentally shape how we communicate, learn, shop, and are informed and entertained. We argue first that the dominant online platforms owe the public greater transparency about the choices made on their platforms. Such transparency is considered table stakes in every discussion about broadband networks owned by ISPs.
I’m not against more transparency, but AT&T is one of the least transparent companies out there. Google was the first company to publish transparency reports about things like content takedowns and (importantly) government requests for data. AT&T resisted calls to do the same for years and then when it finally agreed to do so provided significantly less data than Google. So, seriously, to argue that Google needs to be more transparent is fucking rich from AT&T.
And, again, Google did this by choice and it did so at the same time that AT&T itself was arguing that the FCC should have no oversight over its business. For AT&T to now argue that the FCC should force Google to be more transparent is the height of hypocrisy.
We also argue that Section 230 immunity should be modified to reduce the gross disparities in legal treatment that have emerged between the dominant online platforms and the traditional purveyors of third-party content, such as book publishers, newspapers, or radio and television businesses. There is no longer any reason that the nation’s most powerful online platforms should enjoy legal immunities unavailable to similarly-situated traditional companies.
This is… simply ridiculous. Section 230 protects every company on the internet the same way. Including AT&T. AT&T knows that it enjoys Section 230’s protections as well. It’s why no one gets to sue AT&T when an AT&T account holder does something illegal over its network.
And as the net neutrality debate soldiers on, as it surely will, the Section 230 debate and the broader tech scrutiny underway should serve as a reminder of where the power to control access to content, websites and e-services on the internet really resides – and the neutrality debate that really matters. Adopting an ISP-only “neutrality” regime is as backwards looking as it is mistargeted. It would be akin to landing the plane, but on the wrong day, at the wrong gate, and in the wrong airport.
No. Network neutrality matters because internet access is a commodity product with very, very few choices and extremely high costs (and, especially, switching costs). People want to buy access to the entire internet, not the internet of companies who paid AT&T. Meanwhile, people want Google to rank results, because that’s what search is. This whole blog post by AT&T is truly ridiculous.
This is all cynical nonsense from AT&T’s top lobbyist, trying to stick a knife in Google, the company AT&T has been jealous of for over a decade because Google actually provided people a service people wanted (for free) while AT&T relies on regulatory capture, hidden fees, government handouts, and destroying your privacy.
Filed Under: fcc, hypocrisy, joan marsh, net neutrality, ntia, section 230
Companies: at&t, google