AT&T's Stephenson: Consumers Need Internet Bill of Rights

AT&T chairman Randall Stephenson says it is time for Congress to stop debating and start acting by "writing new laws that govern the internet and protect consumers."

The FCC last month voted to eliminate the rules against ISPS blocking, throttling and paid prioritization, saying the Federal Trade Commission could sufficiently police conduct that was anticompetitive of unfair without those proscriptive rules.

"We intend to work with Congress, other internet companies and consumer groups in the coming months to push for an 'Internet Bill of Rights' that permanently protects the open internet for all users and encourages continued investment for the next generation of internet innovation," he said in an "open letter/ad Wednesday (Jan. 24).

ISPS have argued that the FCC's Title II-based Open Internet order and proscriptive rules discouraged investment and innovation, which those rules backers strongly dispute.

"AT&T is committed to an open internet," said Stephenson. "We don’t block websites. We don’t censor online content. And we don’t throttle, discriminate, or degrade network performance based on content. Period."

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ISPs, including AT&T, have pledged not to block or throttle, though they have left open the possibility of paid prioritization, pointing to the need to prioritize health (remote diagnosis) or safety (self-driving cars) over cat videos, or to provide new services that can be a differentiator among competitors, with the operative word being "competitors"--opponents say there is insufficient competition to provide alternatives if paid prioritization does not sit well with broadband subs.

While ISPs say they will promise not to block or throttle, and support the FCC approach, they also recognize that the next FCC, under new political management, could reimpose hard-line regs.

Stephenson wants new rules to apply to all segments of the internet ecosystem, ISPs and edge providers alike: "The commitment of one company is not enough," he said. "Congressional action is needed to establish an 'Internet Bill of Rights' that applies to all internet companies and guarantees neutrality, transparency, openness, non-discrimination and privacy protection for all internet users."

Stephenson's blog also comes as congressional Democrats are pushing for a legislative solution ISPS do not support--a Congressional Review Act resolution nullifying the FCC's December vote, which would reinstate the old regs. The CRA is highly unlikely to pass.

Responding to the open letter, Fred Campbell, director of Tech Knowledge, said: “Tech Knowledge supports a legislative approach to net neutrality that embraces broader principles of internet governance based on traditional consumer protections, including online privacy, that apply equally to all similarly-situated internet companies. Unfortunately, those in Congress who continue to insist on strict regulation of ISPs that exempt so-called edge providers are ignoring serious consumer concerns about privacy and the growing monopoly power of tech giants in Silicon Valley to control online content. An approach to internet regulation grounded in traditional consumer protection and constitutional limits would transcend today’s artificially restrictive and anticompetitive version of the net neutrality debate while remaining true to free market principles that drive innovation and investment.”

“We have long advocated for Congressional legislation that would make permanent the core principles of an open Internet," said the Internet Innovation Alliance. "Only Congress can craft a unified regulatory framework that would apply to all entities in the Internet ecosystem and provide the nation’s consumers and businesses with the online protections they deserve. Consumers should have one expectation of fair rules on the Internet rather than a confusing patchwork depending on what sites they visit or how they access the Internet."

Public Knowledge, a big fan of the rules the FCC overturned, saw it differently.

“Public Knowledge is glad when AT&T, or any company, commits to supporting net neutrality and strong consumer protections online. Unfortunately, their approach isn’t enough and fails to support the most immediate solution -- reinstating the 2015 net neutrality rules."

"The purpose of today’s open letter calling for an Internet Bill of Rights was to begin a dialog on a comprehensive framework for basic consumer protections on the internet that applies to all internet companies," said an AT&T spokesperson.

"For new technologies, such as self-driving cars, remote surgery and augmented reality, to work, a higher level of internet performance is required. 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. Working collaboratively with Congress, we believe we can develop the right set of policies to accomplish all of these goals."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.