AT&T urges Congress to pass 'internet bill of rights'

AT&T urges Congress to pass 'internet bill of rights'
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AT&T is calling on Congress to pass a net neutrality law that would cover not only internet service providers but also platforms like Facebook and Google.

The telecom giant took out full-page ads in major newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post on Wednesday calling for an “internet bill of rights.”

“Legislation would not only ensure consumers’ rights are protected, but it would provide consistent rules of the road for all internet companies across all websites, content, devices and applications,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson wrote in the ad.

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AT&T has been an outspoken champion of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision last month to repeal its 2015 net neutrality rules, which prevented internet providers from discriminating against web content or from creating internet fast lanes.

The company also pushed Congress last year to eliminate a set of FCC privacy rules that would have required broadband companies to obtain permission from consumers before using their data to sell targeted ads.

Gigi Sohn, who served as an adviser to former Democratic FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, said AT&T was being hypocritical in its call for internet legislation.

“Among other things, the company has led the charge to repeal the Wheeler FCC’s strong broadband privacy rules and rules protecting Americans with landline phones, promoted state laws that ban communities from building their own broadband networks, and of course, has been a central player in the FCC’s recent repeal of its network neutrality rules and the agency’s abdication of its role protecting consumers and competition,” Sohn said in a statement.

“Make no mistake about it, any 'Internet Bill of Rights' supported by AT&T will leave the FCC powerless, net neutrality and privacy protections weak and consumers and competition left out in the cold,” she added.

AT&T and most Republicans argue that the FCC’s net neutrality rules were too heavy-handed and there are sufficient laws on the books to preserve an open internet.

When Congress overturned the FCC privacy rules, AT&T argued that the laws unfairly subjected internet service providers to restrictions that didn’t cover companies like Facebook and Google, which provide more targeted advertising.

Opponents of the FCC’s net neutrality rules are pushing for Congress to fill the void left by the agency’s repeal in order to preempt a regulatory back-and-forth that would accompany every change in administration.

“Without predictable rules for how the internet works, it will be difficult to meet the demands of these new technology advances,” Stephenson wrote.

Net neutrality supporters largely reject any attempt to legislate open internet protections, arguing that a GOP-controlled Congress would not produce rules as strong as what the FCC had in place.

“It would be a lot easier to take AT&T at their word if they hadn't spent more than $16 million last year alone lobbying to kill net neutrality and privacy protections for internet users,” said Evan Greer, an activist with the pro-net neutrality group Fight for the Future. “Internet activists have been warning for months that the big ISPs' plan has always been to gut the rules at the FCC and then use the 'crisis' they created to ram through bad legislation in the name of 'saving' net neutrality.”

Stephenson wrote that AT&T is committed to not blocking or throttling web content, but made no mention of paid prioritization, the creation of internet fast lanes that net neutrality supporters argue would upend what they see as a level playing field on the internet.

On Wednesday afternoon, an AT&T spokesman released a statement saying that the open letter was meant to start a dialogue and that the company had not staked out a position on fast lanes.

"For new technologies, such as self-driving cars, remote surgery and augmented reality, to work, a higher level of internet performance is required," the spokesman said. "If you're in a self-driving car, buffering or data delays are not an option. As it relates to prioritization specifically, we don't know what the ultimate answer is." 

"We want to have a dialog about it with other internet companies and consumer groups, so that Congress is considering all angles as they begin to write the rules of the road on how the internet works, particularly for new innovation and invention, like self-driving cars or augmented reality."

Updated: 1:04 p.m.