from the ill communication dept
You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger enemy of consumer safeguards than the fine folks at AT&T. The company has a history of all manner of anti-competitive behavior, from making its bills harder to understand to help scammers rip off its customers, to routinely ripping off programs designed to help everyone from the hearing imparied to the poor. AT&T also of course played a starring role in killing both the FCC’s 2010 and 2015 net neutrality rules, and pretty much all meaningful state and federal efforts to protect broadband and wireless user privacy.
Yet like clockwork, company executives like to pretend that despite this, they really love net neutrality, privacy, and healthy regulatory oversight. Case in point: AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson attended a conference this week where he once again proclaimed that AT&T really wants Congress to pass meaningful new net neutrality and privacy laws — something the press, as it loves to do, was quick to repeat entirely unskeptically without any necessary context:
“AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson joked Monday that Washington may not agree “on the freezing temperature of water,” but he called on a divided Congress to come together pass net neutrality and privacy legislation. The executive called for legislative clarity around the issue of broadband Internet access, saying certain basic principles should be codified into law.”
Notice for a moment that the linked outlet in question doesn’t bother to clarify to readers that we had meaningful net neutrality and broadband privacy rules at the FCC (passed after years of painstaking debate), and AT&T lobbyists worked tirelessly to kill both of them. AT&T also routinely battles any efforts to mandate more competition or broadband availability, to the point where they prevent efforts to even improve broadband availability maps. These are not problems AT&T wants fixed; rather important context when judging the merits of Stephenson’s statements.
To be clear, AT&T doesn’t want meaningful privacy or net neutrality legislation. It wants loophole filled placeholder laws on these subjects in name only; laws that pretend to address the problems on both of these fronts, but serve one key purpose: pre-empt tougher state or federal laws that might actually accomplish something. AT&T wants laws its lawyers write that don’t actually fix the problems we all largely agree need fixing, especially the lack of broadband competition that helped create privacy and net neutrality violations in the first place.
That tech and policy reporters don’t understand this (or understand it but for whatever reason don’t share this fact with readers) is consistently frustrating.
Stephenson’s schtick is always exhausting. But he outdid himself with some additional commentary at the conference, most notably this bit:
“I get fatigued every time the President changes, the head of the FCC changes, and regulations swing from left to right,” Stephenson said in remarks tonight at the Wall Street Journal’s WSJ Tech D. Live conference in Laguna Beach.”
Again, Stephenson’s lobbyists are directly responsible for this hard shift “right” away from giving a damn about consumer protection. AT&T backed Trump and Ajit Pai to the point where it thought it was a good idea to pay a shady dudebro “fixer” $600,000 to covertly gain access to the President. And since the “swing” shifted in AT&T’s favor it has received absolutely everything it asked for, from a full out assault on federal and state consumer protections, to an FCC that’s often literally indistinguishable from AT&T’s lobbying apparatus.
Again, the pretense being pushed by Stephenson here is that we can’t rely on the partisan whims of the FCC and we should encode tough consumer protection into law via Congress. And in an ideal world, that’s a sound argument. But this isn’t an ideal world, and AT&T’s arguments aren’t made in good faith. It’s a world in which AT&T throws money at politicians to ensure any real protections will never get passed. You can’t pass meaningful privacy or net neutrality laws via Congress because companies like AT&T spend billions of dollars and countless man hours to prevent that from happening.
You can, however, throw campaign contributions at lawmakers eager to table “compromise legislation” that’s usually nowhere near an actual compromise. Countless politicians (most notably Marsha Blackburn) love to table AT&T-crafted legislation and pretend it’s a sincere attempt to solve complex technical problems, ignoring that said bills almost always have fewer teeth than a dottering grandpa and more holes than a ratty, knitted afghan.
AT&T’s ideal net neutrality law would ban things ISPs never intended to do anyway (like the outright blocking of websites), while ignoring all the areas ISPs engage in creative anti-competitive behavior (like usage caps and zero rating or interconnection shenanigans). The same applies to privacy. AT&T wants a law that mandates ISPs do things they already do (like “clearly informing” users how they’re being spied on via mouse print), but doesn’t ban any of the bad things AT&T has been busted doing (like modifying packets to covertly track users, or charging users more money if they want to protect their own private data).
Meanwhile, at the same conference, Stephenson whined incessantly about how numerous state efforts to pass their own privacy and net neutrality laws were a “total disaster,” hoping nobody is bright enough to realize that wouldn’t be happening if Stephenson’s lobbyists hadn’t dismantled pretty modest federal guidelines.
There’s nothing about Stephenson’s arguments that are grounded in good faith, yet you’d have a hard time understanding that if you’re a reader of news reports that are often more blind stenography than actual insight fueled by historical context.
Filed Under: net neutrality, privacy, randall stephenson