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Update: AT&T Slams Google Voice; Could Open Can of Worms

When AT&T complained last week to federal regulators that Google was breaking telecom laws, the phone giant may have opened a bigger debate about the Federal Communications Commission's traditional approach to the industry, analysts and legal experts say.

In a nutshell, AT&T argued in a letter to the FCC last week that Google Voice--a service that, among other things, connects regular old phone calls--was blocking some of those calls to rural areas. That practice, which Google admits to, violates call-blocking laws for traditional phone service operators, known in telecom-speak as "common carriers."

Google argued that its service isn't a telecommunications service but an Internet application that isn't subject to the call-blocking telephone rules. That's where things get messy and interesting.

As regulators shift their focus from telephone regulation to policies for the Web (net neutrality, a national broadband plan), there may be a move to rethink the buckets of technology definitions used during the pre-Internet age.

"The reason why it has become increasingly difficult for the FCC to avoid these questions is because of the broad uptake of broadband services," said Rick Joyce, the chairman of the telecommunications practice of law firm Venable. "We've always said that technology in this sector outstrips the ability for regulators to regulate it. But when 60 to 80 percent of the country has wireless and high-speed broadband access and carries a device that receives or sends all these different kinds of services, then you have reached the proverbial tipping point."

For at least three years, regulators have debated--without clear conclusion--where voice services over the Web fit in. Such Web services, which can include Skype, maybe Google Voice, and Comcast Digital Voice, are for now viewed as information services and not subject to the more heavily regulated world of telephone service operators. But what about text messaging, or SMS services? They aren't currently clearly defined as telecommunications or IP services. And video services like AT&T's U-Verse isn't clearly a cable service, which would strap the service with cable industry regulations.

What is clear, legal experts say, is that from phone giant AT&T's perspective, telephone service providers are living in a world bound by many more regulatory restrictions than the less regulated world in which their Internet counterparts operate. If you are AT&T, you want your competitors to swim in the same pool as you do, said Rebecca Arbogast, head of tech policy research at Stifel Nicholaus.

"If the point of the letter was to stir things up and it is a rhetorical point, that is one thing," Arbogast said. "But if this is a serious position, which is to say that things have changed so profoundly and we need to look at if Google's applications and Apple's decisions and incumbents provision of services all together, then that is major undertaking without certainty where it will end out."

The communications landscape has become all the more complex as firms offer overlapping services. Internet companies like Vonage and Skype offer phone service, phone companies like AT&T and Verizon Communications offer Internet access over their equipment. Cable and phone companies offer video services over data networks.

"Much as the FCC wishes there was still a clear distinction between 'the Internet' and 'the telephone network,' technology has obliterated that difference," Larry Downes, a non-resident fellow at the Stanford Law School Center of Internet and Society, wrote in his blog Tuesday.

He proposed the FCC wipe the slate clean: "Hold everyone to the same rules regardless of what information they are transporting-whether voice, video, television, data. Because regardless of who's doing what, these days it's all bits."

The FCC hasn't commented on AT&T's letter, saying only that it has been received and is under reviewing.

(Update with AT&T response):

When asked if the letter could raise questions at the agency about rewriting regulatory definitions for VOIP services such as Comcast Digital and Web applications like Skype, AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said:

"Google admits to blocking these calls (we haven't heard that other providers such as Skype or Comcast are doing same), and in our letter, we highlight FCC precedent that would appear to subject Google Voice to the same call blocking prohibition as other providers," Balmoris said in an e-mail. "So, we are urging the Commission to level the playing field and order Google to play by the same rules as its competitors."

By Cecilia Kang  |  September 30, 2009; 10:35 PM ET  | Category:  Cecilia Kang
Previous: Internet Speeds Are Often Slower Than What Consumers Pay For, FCC Finds | Next: Former FCC Chair: Yes to Net Neutrality, But Maybe Not Wireless, As He Heads to Firm With Telecom Clients


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I wonder why Google is blocking rural calls?

Maybe the FCC should look at classifying the services by layer and determining regulation that way.

I would think the people at the physical layer would need slightly different rules than those at the application layer... since the big boys are rarely pure plays on one layer, though, it would likely effectively even the playing field while allowing niche players to exploit certain advantages.

Posted by: AJohn1 | September 30, 2009 11:56 AM

What in the Sam Phatness is AT&T so scared of? They are REALLY going at Google hard aren't they?

And what's all this hub bub about a level playing field? They should have considered that before they signed the deal with Apple in trying to monopolize the iPhone business that people are realizing is a farce now and Google is finding a way around lockdowns to provide service to whomever should want it through internet provision.

This is really funny to me...greedy corporate execs are reaping their fruits due to dirty business and now they are looking for the FCC to bail them out.

Don't look for the FCC to help out AT&T if Google plans on sweeping the industry by storm. One corporate giants realize the old gig is up, move on...let Google do business and re-write legislation based on the wave of the future.

Wait.

this IS the future.

Go home AT&T.

Posted by: cbmuzik | September 30, 2009 11:59 AM

Google is funding pretty much all of the lobbying in DC for "network neutrality." AT&T is right to point out Google's hypocrisy when its lobbyists falsely claim that ISPs woud block legal content (they never have) while Google blocks legitimate telephone calls itself.

Posted by: squirma | September 30, 2009 12:42 PM

Google blocks the calls because incoming calls to many rural areas are charged more by the local carriers. Much as I hate to admit it, ATT is right on this. If the playing field is going to be level, it needs to be level for everyone all the time. GOOGLE doesn't want to call it a phone service, but it is. As such it needs to abide by the same rules as ATT does when placing a phone call over the copper. And ATT can not block, throttle, or delay phone calls made by GOOGLE over ATT internet lines. Its called being fair and not taking advantage of a monopoly.

Posted by: mdembski1 | September 30, 2009 3:33 PM

squirma, ISP's have indeed blocked legal content.

Comcast blocked Vuze and that World of Warcraft game when they blocked BitTorrent. Just to point out - Vuze is in fact in competition with Comcast. Vuze was one of the groups that complained to the FCC.

Madison River blocked Vonage in 2005 - another application that the ISP was in competition with.

The Canadian site contained threats in blog comments. No one I've seen, other than you, claims they were death threats - not even Telus's press release on the subject, which I tend to doubt would leave out such a justification. Further, they did not block "a site" with issues - they blocked only one site - of the union they were wrangling with, that the union was using to discuss strategy during a strike.

AT&T, acting as a content provider, deleted words from a WebCast of Pearl Jam in 2007 (comments about Bush.)

Verizon Wireless refused to allow a political group to send text messages on a sensitive subject on its wireless mobile network.

Source - Feb 09, Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, Barbara van Schewick's comments on net neutrality

Posted by: VirginiaGal2 | September 30, 2009 7:41 PM

VirginiaGal2: Of course lawyer Barbara van Shewick failed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; her salary at Stanford is paid by a large endowment from Google, and she has been paying Google back by advocating for its corporate agenda.

The fact is that the Canadian site that was blocked contained death threats against workers who crossed picket lines. What's more, the site was NOT the official site the a labor union, but rather the personal site of a union member named David DiMaria. Among other things, the site contained pictures of non-union employees who were crossing the picket lines, together with their home addresses, their phone numbers, and threats directed at them. It further advocated that union members go to the addresses listed and physically harm these "scabs." (The site also instructed visitors to jam Telus' customer support lines, and was thus inciting another illegal activity, though this obviously is much less serious than threats to life and limb.)

What did Telus do? Seeing that its employees could well be harmed, it did what it could to protect their physical safety. It blocked the Web site immediately. And since it couldn't block the site completely (it could only keep its own customers from going to it), Telus then went to court asking for an injunction requiring the threats to be taken down.

Ultimately, the case was settled out of court. A copy of the settlement between Telus and the owner of the Web site is available on Flikr at

http://flickr.com/photos/penmachine/29590389/

(This is a very large GIF file -- not the ideal format for such a document. But if you zoom in, it is readable and tells the story.)

A letter from his lawyer (the first two pages) advises Mr. DiMaria that there was indeed threatening material on the site that would have justified an injunction. (The lawyer describes his own client's Web site content as "thoroughly reprehensible.") The letter doesn't enumerate everything that was posted, but mentions two examples. One of the employees who was threatened -- a dark skinned East Indian -- was described as a "terrorist" and his name, address, and phone number were published. Due to the threats, he was compelled to pack up his family and leave town.

And this is, as Paul Harvey would say, "the rest of the story."

The other accusations you make are likewise false. AT&T played a recording of a concert that had ALREADY BEEN EDITED BY THE PRODUCERS; it had no knowledge that political comments had been edited out. And you're also mischaracterizing the text messaging incident, which -- by the way -- had to do with SMS and not the Internet. And not a single message was blocked; rather, the issuance of a "short code" was delayed by about three days.

Unfortunately, this sort of misinformation shows the lengths to which corporate lobbyists will go to get their clients' agendas enacted -- at the expense of the general public.

Posted by: squirma | September 30, 2009 9:02 PM

WHAT?

Google argued that its service isn't a telecommunications service but an Internet application....

any judge that buys googles B.S. is an idiot.

Posted by: kkrimmer | September 30, 2009 9:19 PM

Who care what Ma Bell thinks? I don't. And neither should the FCC.

Posted by: tuzoner | September 30, 2009 9:47 PM

Sorry, Brett, your ad hominem attacks don't work.

Barbara van Shewick is not just a lawyer - she also has a PhD in computer science, and is the co-director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. She is also, per Stanford, "an assistant professor of electrical engineering (by Courtesy) at Stanford’s Department of Electrical Engineering."

The Center for Internet and Society was founded by Lawrence Lessig, the well-known expert on the Internet. It was not founded by Google.

The Canadian ISP blocked one site, out of the millions on the Internet that had potentially hateful content. You have provided NO source for your claims that that particular site had death threats.

It was definitely threatening and inappropriate and deserved the injunction it got, but sorry, no actual death threats I've seen anywhere. If you have source material that explicitly calls for death, let's see it.

No one claimed it was an official site. No one claims it was a benign site. But was it really the worst site on the entire Internet to block?

MILLIONS of sites on the Internet have content as bad or worse - jihadi content, child porn, death threats, incitement to violence.

Out of those millions, what site did Telus block? A jihadi site? A threatening political figures? A site about making bombs? A site peddling child porn?

Nope. They blocked the site about their labor union.

No rational person would buy the idea that site was the most dangerous on the Internet. They didn't block all equally harmful, threatening, or dangerous sites. Their concern appeared to have been for the one where their ox was gored.

So I'm sorry, your argument simply does not hold water.

As far as your AT&T claim, AT&T apparently admitted that one of their webcast editors censored the broadcast. See http://www.rollingstone.com/rockdaily/index.php/2007/08/09/pearl-jams-anti-bush-ad-libs-missing-from-atts-lollapalooza-webcast/

Posted by: VirginiaGal2 | September 30, 2009 10:13 PM

VirginiaGal2 writes: "You have provided NO source for your claims that that particular site had death threats."

Not true. I've posted the URL. Read the document.

Likewise, information about the AT&T broadcast is available in many places on the Net. The recording was edited before AT&T streamed it.

Why are you do doggedly clinging to every tenuous, false assertion made by Google's lobbyists? It's hard to believe that you do not have a serious vested interest.

Posted by: squirma | September 30, 2009 10:22 PM

... and AT&T seems to be having Apple block the Google Voice app from the iPhone. How is that fair?

Google Voice is a FREE service; AT&T doesn't even know the word "free." I pay them handsomely each month for 4 iPhones; I can't wait til their exclusivity ends so I can bolt. Google's FREE service should NOT be held to the same standard as AT&T's paid business.

Posted by: ghostmoves | September 30, 2009 10:40 PM

squirma, I'm sorry, but I've provided quotes that back up my statements. I am not going to read a huge GIF in my off time when your best example of "death threats" is calling someone a terrorist.

At&T's admission that one of their webcast editors made the changes is at http://gigaom.com/2007/08/08/att-censored-pearl-jam-webcast/ as well as mentioned in the Rolling Stone article I previously referenced.

I do have a serious, vested interest in this - as do we all. I want to live in a free society.

I am not impressed by your endless nattering about Google, any more than I'm impressed by the birthers yelling "birth certificate." At this point, every time you start mentioning Google, I see Jon Stewart's bit about birthers.

The arguments for net neutrality stand on their own. We need it for freedom of speech and the freedom to do business. I care about my society and I know enough about tech to understand how terribly important this is.

Posted by: VirginiaGal2 | September 30, 2009 10:43 PM

VirginiaGal2, if you really wanted to live in a free society, you wouldn't be opting for regulation of the Internet -- which is currently free but would not be if "network neutrality" were forced on it. "Network neutrality" is the Fairness Doctrine for the Internet.

As for your unwillingness to look at the URL I've posted: closing your eyes and yelling, "La-la-la-la-la I can't hear you" doesn't make the evidence go away. Readers of this page who, unlike VirginiaGal2, who want to know the truth about the false assertions of the "network neutrality" lobbyists should read it.

They should also read not only the Rolling Stone article but other creditable sources on the Web, all of which state that the AT&T stream of the Pearl Jam concert in question was censored by a third party contractor, which exercised its own judgment about what to censor in an "all ages" program, and not by AT&T.

Finally, they should ask themselves what kind of Internet they want. A vibrant, changing, innovative environment -- such as the one we've had for the past 26 years -- or an ossified, stagnant one with stringent regulation, where innovators have to ask "Mother, may I?" before introducing new technology.

I, for one, know which one I'd pick.

--Brett Glass, LARIAT

Posted by: squirma | October 1, 2009 12:49 AM

Brett, you are not answering the issues. Your posts are simply full of red herrings.

All you can say, when proven wrong, is "you're saying the same thing that Google says, Google is evil, your argument must be evil."

As a line of reasoning, it isn't the lamest argument I've ever heard in my life, but it's sure on the short list.

I suppose you think the ACLU, the AARP, the Association of Research Librarians, and Consumers Union are all saying the same thing b/c you think Google paid them off?

Net neutrality was the de-facto rule of the Internet until about 2002, when some really bad regulatory and court decisions undermined it.

Net neutrality is what we expect from the Internet, and what has been, until recently, the reality.

Net neutrality is needed for a free society. It is not the "Fairness Doctrine" for the Internet - it is the First Amendment for the Internet.

Because you apparently are not aware, the Fairness Doctrine required that broadcasters actively balance content - pushing stuff at us to try to control the flow of information.

The First Amendment requires that we not meddle in the free flow of thought. Net neutrality insures free flow of thought.

It does not require that you try to "balance" the amount of information presented on anything. It simply requires that your ISP does not block it.

Were you around when the Bill of Rights were written, I have no doubt you would be arguing that these useless regulations were not needed. Most of us know better.

As for the rest, the AT&T cut - dude, a contractor is your employee and you are responsible for their actions. In this day and age, with outsourcing, many businesses are practically run by contractors.

I notice you are no longer claiming it was an independent producer who did it before AT&T even got it.

Re the ISPs abuse of power - I have absolutely no problem with anyone looking up the URL in question - and then look up the reality, which are hundreds of thousands of really, really bad URLs, with jihadi content, with death threats, bomb making information, places where you can hire a hit man - none of them blocked.

The question is not, was the site bad. I don't need to see the site to know it was bad, and I've agreed it was bad - although it is interesting that you are unwilling to post any quotes that back up your claims.

The question is, should an ISP block only a site that they have a financial and business beef with - an ongoing union dispute, while leaving millions of equally bad or worse sites unblocked?

The answer is no, that is an abuse of power. What's scary to me is that you can't see it.

Posted by: VirginiaGal2 | October 1, 2009 7:22 AM

It is very simple are you making a phone call. Yes, then it is AT&T's call to protect their investment. I don't like AT&T. They have some inept employees and bot so honest business practices but they are in the right to protect their phone services. The mode of transportation has nothing to do with intent. Just like when the phone line was adopted for data using a modem. The framework was a dual purpose that wasn't given much thought and customers had a right to be charged only for phone calls not internet access.

There is are many other problems that would be better spent time on. Number one is that consumers are NOT getting even close to advertised broadband speeds. Where is the beef ?

I have no sympathy for another large corporation like Google trying to promote it's product through the investment of another company trying to protect theirs'. Why doesn't Google build out it's own voice/data network. Perhaps that could work with IRidium and get us the next level of real communication. Gee according to the entitlement minded people this should be free of course. Good Luck......

Posted by: harveyg | October 1, 2009 10:16 AM

Ironically, harveyg, Google IS building out its own data network to carry the same Internet traffic which it was previously sending over other carriers' lines. But Google insists that its OWN data network should not be regulated, while at the same time it is lobbying for other carriers' networks to be subjected to heavy regulation, thus giving it an edge. "Do as I say, not as I do," eh?

Also, regulation often makes things worse, not better. For example, the tempest in a teapot mentioned above -- in which AT&T was accused of censorship -- was the direct result of prior heavy handed regulation: the FCC's levying of fines against broadcasters after the infamous Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident. To avoid similar fines, AT&T hired a contractor to put the show on a 2 second delay and censor any language for which it might be fined. The censors, concerned that insults aimed at the Bush Administration might result in fines from the Bush FCC, cut the sound. AT&T had no direct hand in it, but the net result was that the language was removed. As a result of FCC regulation.

More regulation is sure to only make things worse.

Posted by: squirma | October 1, 2009 12:28 PM

Harveyg, actually, AT&T and all phone companies are subject to the equivalent of net neutrality for its phone lines - common carrier.

Common carrier provisions apply to phone service, utilities, transportation, and other licensed providers of services. Common carrier is the only reason we have a choice of phone companies in this country and it is the bedrock of how our phone service works.

What you buy is use of the phone lines and long distance carrier lines. You do not have to pay again if people call you. You cannot be discriminated against or arbitrarily refused service.

The whole principle of phone service is that the caller pays for the service they use, and service is charged for according to level of usage. That's exactly what net neutrality advocates suggest we do with the Internet.

We don't expect businesses to pay AT&T extra if people call them - the callers pay. We can depend on having our calls put through, and not arbitrarily blocked. We expect people called to have paid for their phone line and connection, and the callers pay for the calls.

What ISPs are advocating is equivalent to small business having to pay for every call received, in addition to the caller paying for the call on their end.

The reason we have common carrier for phone service is to prevent the huge problems that unreasonable discrimination by a monopoly or duopoly would cause to the rest of the economy.

Net neutrality is common carrier for the Internet.

squirma, Google Voice is a service that allows you to connect various phone numbers, not a data network on its own - basically smart call forwarding with some cute bells and whistles. Google is not building its own data network to support Google voice.

I don't know enough about it to have an opinion on the whole "rural access" issue for Google Voice and honestly, as it doesn't provide phone service in itself - Google Voice links phone numbers, it doesn't provide phone service - I'm not at all sure the rural access thing would apply.

Also, squirma, your AT&T explanation is off the mark. FCC fines do not apply to internet transmissions. They apply only to broadcast TV. The Internet does not have a "decency" code, as anyone who has hit on the wrong link is likely well aware.

Further, what was censored was not "indecent content", but rather a political jibe at the president.

Posted by: VirginiaGal2 | October 1, 2009 7:22 PM

"Network neutrality" goes much, much farther than "common carrier" restrictions (which are already far too much) for the Internet. It would straitjacket ISPs and kill innovation.

As for the Pearl Jam incident: given the tendency of the FCC to overreach (as it did in the Comcast case and in the Janet Jackson incident), AT&T had very good reason to worry that the FCC would penalize it if Eddie Vedder engaged in profanity (as he often does) during an "all ages" broadcast. I really cannot say that I blame them for doing the same thing that other broadcasters, regardless of medium, began to do after that incident.

And if the FCC does start regulating the Internet, it will surely begin to regulate content. Once the camel's nose is in the tent, it won't stop.

Posted by: squirma | October 1, 2009 8:26 PM

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