AT&T channels -- the devil? -- in explaining why net neutrality debate is over the top
AT&T thinks supporters of net neutrality are crying wolf -- or Satanic light bulbs. Okay, bear with me, I'll explain.
It's pointing to extreme "what ifs" that could occur if the Federal Communications Commission doesn't create rules that would require companies like it to treat all traffic equally on the Web. But it says there aren't enough examples of wrongdoing to justify those fears. And the company wonders whether rules would justify what they describe to this point as mostly fears.
Companies such as Google and public interest groups disagree. They point to a handful of examples of discrimination by broadband service providers that advantage their businesses unfairly. And they say rules today would protect the growth of Internet applications. Google said in a recent filing to the FCC that AT&T blocked Slingplayer on its network even after the mobile video provider configured its application so that it wouldn't eat up too much bandwidth.
Back to Satan.
In a blog post today, AT&T's vice president of federal regulatory affairs, Hank Hultquist, compared those fears to a fear-mongering tactic decades ago used to drum up support for a weak cause.
Take a look at the odd, but headline-grabbing comparison:
In 1925, a young Californian claimed to have been told by the angel Gabriel that the world would end at midnight on February 13th. A number of people believed this prophecy including a Long Island housepainter named Robert Reidt who assembled a hillside gathering of believers to meet their fate. When midnight came and went uneventfully, Reidt rationalized that the angel must have meant Pacific time, and he exhorted the crowd to wait for three more hours. Three hours later he chalked up the continued non-occurrence of the extraordinary events to the “Satanic flashbulbs” of the reporters who had shown up.
At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering what this strange story could possibly have to do with broadband policy. I had a bit of a déjà vu experience while reading some of the reply comments filed the other day in the open Internet proceeding, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what was going on. Then, while listening to Wednesday’s Open Internet workshop in Seattle, I remembered Reidt and his ridiculous attempts to explain the failure of the apocalyptic prophecy.
In AT&T’s reply comments, we pointed out similar failures on the part of the Internet’s own doomsday prophets, such as Larry Lessig and Tim Wu.
Here, I’d like to look more closely at just one of the predicted calamities that stubbornly refuses to occur – the imposition of “terminating access charges” on Internet application and content providers.
For years, advocates of extreme versions of net neutrality have been saying that without a complete ban on the sale of certain undefined service enhancements, ISPs will “someday just around the corner” impose the equivalent of “terminating access charges” on application and content providers. But as each day passes without any ISP perpetrating such a scheme, you might think these doomsday prophets would be forced to recant and accept the fact that ISPs have no unilateral power to impose uneconomic charges on non-customers. (Of course, this might change dramatically if the FCC classified Internet access under Title II with its long history of regulated interconnection, including mandatory termination charges.) Instead, they have taken a page from Reidt’s playbook.
Google points to recent “advances in router technology” as reasons why the end is nigh unless something is done. I guess this is the “Pacific time” approach to explaining how it is that billions of packets continue to be exchanged without the imposition of terminating access charges. Google’s as sure as ever that the apocalypse is almost upon us. It just has to wait for the next generation of routers. Yeah, right.
At Wednesday’s workshop, a Yahoo executive speculated that perhaps the reason why ISPs haven’t engaged in this kind of “holdup” is because of the threat of regulation by the FCC. Far be it from me to compare the FCC to “Satanic flashbulbs,” but as with Reidt’s explanation, I’m not sure how it works for all the hillsides around the world where the sun continues to rise without the threat of regulation of enhanced network services.
April 30, 2010; 12:49 PM ET
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