AT&T Joins Protest In Favor of Net Neutrality Rules It Hates

Jul 11, 2017

AT&T, a leading opponent of the federal government's 2015 net neutrality rules, said it would join an online protest this week in favor of keeping the rules.

In recognition of the "Day of Action" on July 12, the company said it would display on its website banners in favor of maintaining a "free and open" Internet. But the company said it still opposes the 2015 net neutrality rules, which prevent Internet service providers from blocking, slowing or otherwise discriminating against online content.

"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," AT&T's top lobbyist, Bob Quinn, said in a blog post on Tuesday. "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."

The confusing stance comes as the Federal Communications Commission under new chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon (vz) lawyer appointed by President Trump to head the agency, is working to roll back the rules. Many Internet companies, including Facebook (fb), Google, and Netflix (nflx), are banding together this week to try to generate a wave of public support to protect the rules from Pai's repeal efforts.

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Supporters of the current rules attacked AT&T's planned July 12 actions as misleading. "This is so ridiculous I'm laughing out loud," Evan Greer, one of the organizers of the protest day and campaign director for the online advocacy group Fight the Future, said. "AT&T and other companies like Comcast and Verizon have waged an all-out war on net neutrality protections, because they want to be able to charge Internet users and startups extra fees, and squeeze all of us for more money for less Internet."

AT&T tried to explain that it was mainly opposed to the legal basis that the FCC used to justify imposing the 2015 net neutrality rules. After courts had struck down two earlier attempts to protect online openness saying the agency lacked the authority, the FCC under Obama-appointee Tom Wheeler classified Internet service providers as "common carriers" much like phone carriers. The designation, under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, satisfied the courts but stoked fears among the companies that they could be subject to more regulation in the future, including price controls.

"Saddling modern broadband infrastructure and investment decisions with heavy-handed, outdated telephone regulations creates an environment of market uncertainty that does little to advance internet openness," AT&T's Quinn wrote in his blog post. "Instead, it jeopardizes the prospects for continued innovation and robust growth we have witnessed since the internet’s creation."

But net neutrality supporter Greer pointed out that the rules needed a strong legal underpinning after lawsuits by Internet service providers cut down earlier attempts.

"It's outrageous, and a blatant attempt to confuse the public, that they are claiming they are joining a grassroots online protest that's explicitly intended to defend the Title II based net neutrality protections that people from across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support," Greer said.

AT&T was under investigation by the FCC last year for potentially violating the net neutrality rules, but Pai dismissed the probe. Staff at the agency had concluded that AT&T (t) might be in violation because it allowed its wireless customers to watch as much streaming video from its DirecTV Now app as they wanted without counting against their monthly data limits. But watching video from competing apps like Dish Network's (dish) Sling TV or Google's (googl) YouTube did count against data allowances.

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