For several months now, major internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon have been breathlessly-insisting that the repeal of net neutrality protections is simply no big deal. Sure, Large ISPs may have spent the better part of 15 years and millions of dollars trying to kill net neutrality and broadband privacy protections, but the nation’s giant ISPs would have you believe they have absolutely no intention of actually taking advantage of this fact. For example, in a video posted earlier this year, Verizon went so far as to use a fake journalist to interview Verizon general counsel Craig Silliman, who proceeded to claim that consumers should rest easy because none of this is actually happening. "The FCC is not talking about killing the net neutrality rules," claimed Silliman. "And in fact, not we nor any other ISP are asking them to kill the open internet rules. All they're doing is looking to put the open internet rules in an enforceable way on a different legal footing." Of course that’s undeniably false. Verizon led the charge in gutting oversight of one of the least-liked, least-competitive industries in America, and its lawsuit helped dismantle the FCC’s flimsy 2010 protections, paving the way for the creation of the tougher 2015 rules. Rules Verizon and other big ISPs are now just a week away from successfully dismantling. So to be clear: by “different legal footing,” Verizon most assuredly means no sound legal footing whatsoever. Not to be outdone by Verizon, AT&T last week offered its own take on the FCC’s plan to dismantle these popular consumer protections. In a blog post, AT&T lobbyist Bob Quinn tried to argue that the immense criticism being levied at the FCC for its decision to scrap net neutrality is based largely on “misinformation” and “rhetorical excess.” He then proceeded to insist he was simply eager to limit the debate “to a discussion of facts,” promising readers that “there will be no change in how your internet works after the order is adopted.”
The FCC’s 2010 rules were, quite by design, utterly toothless
“AT&T intends to operate its network the same way AT&T operates its network today: in an open and transparent manner,” Quinn said. “We will not block websites, we will not throttle or degrade internet traffic based on content, and we will not unfairly discriminate in our treatment of internet traffic (all consistent with the rules that were adopted—and that we supported—in 2010, and the rules in place today.)” Ignored by Quinn is the fact that the FCC’s 2010 rules were, quite by design, utterly toothless. The rules, co-written at the time by AT&T, Verizon, and Google, had so many loopholes as to be effectively meaningless, letting large ISPs engage in pretty much any and every anti-competitive behavior, provided they vaguely implied it was for the health and security of the network. The rules were so inadequate, they failed to cover wireless networks whatsoever.
Quinn also ignores that as consumers and competitors grew wise to bad ISP behavior on the net neutrality front, ISP efforts simply evolved to become more creative. Instead of ham-fistedly blocking or throttling websites, ISPs began to use usage caps, overage fees, and zero rating to hamstring competitors. They also faced numerous accusations that they were letting interconnection peering points congest to drive up costs for transit companies and content competitors. Regardless, without net neutrality rules, all of these offenses (including ones ISPs haven’t thought up yet) will be back on the table.
Throughout his missive, Quinn makes one steady refrain: that none of the documented abuses of net neutrality ever actually happened.
“The doomsayers, of course, have a different view, conspicuously colored by a litany of hypotheticals and hyperbole, and generally devoid of facts,”Quinn said. “Some are calling this the death of the internet as we know it. The doomsayers, however, have been making these and similar dire predictions for years.” The problem for Quinn is that the doomsayers are absolutely correct, and the historical record proves it. While Quinn tries to portray net neutrality abuses as wholesale hallucinations, AT&T has a long, undeniable history of engaging in all manner of bad behavior only made possible by a lack of competition in the telecom industry. The company was lambasted in 2012 when it blocked wireless customer access to Facetime on iPhones simply to drive users to more expensive plans. AT&T was allowed to dodge accountability for the behavior solely because the 2010 rules it cowrote allowed it to hide behind claims it was only engaging in “reasonable network management.”
AT&T has also consistently engaged in zero rating—the practice of imposing often arbitrary and unnecessary usage caps and overage fees, then letting the company’s own content freely bypass these restrictions. As such, caps and overage fees have been a great way for companies to give their own services an unfair advantage in the increasingly competitive streaming video market. You might recall that the FCC was just about to declare AT&T’s behavior on this front anti-competitive under its net 2015 neutrality protections when the Trump administration took over the FCC and decided to deep six the rules.
And that’s just net neutrality violations. On the privacy front (where a lack of competition similarly allows bad behavior because users can’t vote with their wallets), AT&T was widely criticized for charging users hundreds of additional dollars simply to opt-out of the company’s behavior advertisements, a privacy-as-luxury tax AT&T had the audacity to call a “discount.” Like Verizon, AT&T was also caught covertly modifying wireless user packets to track users around the internet, a practice it only backed off of in the wake of media exposure.
As such, Quinn’s promise that nothing bad will happen isn’t likely to provide much comfort for consumers or AT&T competitors.
They’re gunning for a total dismantling of nearly all sector oversight (and succeeding)
Net neutrality violations are, after all, little more than a symptom of limited competition in the broadband market. Removing regulatory oversight of such a competitively-hamstrung sector is all-but guaranteed to make the problem worse. And it’s worth reiterating that killing net neutrality is only one part of the incumbent AT&T lobbying strategy. The goal, as it stands now, is to not only gut net neutrality protections, but FCC authority over broadband providers almost entirely. From there, lobbyists hope to shove all remaining oversight to an FTC that not only lacks the resources or authority to fully police broadband ISPs, but is currently engaged in a lawsuit with AT&T that could erode that authority even further.
To be clear: AT&T and the telecom industry as a whole are not just looking for “more reasonable” regulation or a return to “more sensible” industry oversight. They’re gunning for a total dismantling of nearly all sector oversight (and succeeding). Once it gets done gutting the FCC and FTC’s ability to police anti-competitive, anti-consumer behavior, lobbyists and the FCC have signaled that they will crack down on any states that try to close the enforcement gap. That was most clearly demonstrated recently when industry lobbyists circulated all manner of falsehoods to scuttle a California broadband privacy proposal backed by the Electronic Freedom Foundation.
ISP lobbyists are building a future where neither competition nor adult regulatory supervision prevents giant ISPs from abusing a clearly broken market. AT&T’s claim that things will somehow magically get better by gutting consumer protections with broad bipartisan support is completely detached from both reality and the historical record.