The next big episode in America’s ongoing net-neutrality saga occurs this week, and it already has a surprising twist.
On Wednesday, hundreds of internet companies — from Amazon and Google to PornHub and several lesser-known ones — will stage an online protest billed as the “Internet-Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality.”
When the day kicks off, those participants will be joined, at least nominally, by one of the companies in their crosshairs: AT&T. The telecom giant on Tuesday said in a blog post it will join the action.
“This may seem like an anomaly to many people who might question why AT&T is joining with those who have differing viewpoints on how to ensure an open and free internet,” the company said. “But that’s exactly the point – we all agree that an open internet is critical for ensuring freedom of expression and a free flow of ideas and commerce in the United States and around the world. We agree that no company should be allowed to block content or throttle the download speeds of content in a discriminatory manner.”
The company did not say exactly what it will do to support the protest. Other companies plan to post prominent alerts, banner ads, videos, and other calls to action on their websites in support of the Federal Communication Commission’s current net-neutrality rules, which new FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a free-market Republican, is trying to repeal. The protest is being coordinated by left-leaning advocacy groups Fight for the Future, Free Press, and Demand Progress, all of which support the current rules.
Representatives of those groups scoffed at the notion that AT&T was really on their side.
“I have to admit, this is so ridiculous I’m laughing out loud,” said Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future, in an email. “AT&T and other companies like Comcast and Verizon have waged an all out war on net neutrality protections, because they want to be able to charge Internet users and startups extra fees, and squeeze all of us for more money for less Internet.”
And indeed, even though AT&T plans to join the protest, the company made clear that, unlike the groups organizing the protest, it still opposes the current net-neutrality rules.
Passed in 2015 under then-chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, those rules bar internet service providers like AT&T from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing access to particular sites or services. They are grounded in Title II of the Communications Act, which gives the FCC authority over public utility-like “common carriers.” As part of those rules, the agency reclassified AT&T and other broadband providers as common carriers.
Those companies and their allies vehemently opposed the move, but the agency did it in large part to address the shortcomings of its previous attempts to guarantee net neutrality. A federal appeals court had struck down two prior sets of net-neutrality rules, saying FCC hadn’t grounded them in the proper authority.
AT&T itself challenged the latest rules in court, but it lost that fight. Thus, the current net neutrality rules are the only ones that have withstood a legal challenge.
But those rules are now under a different kind of threat, thanks to the election of President Donald Trump. Trump named Pai as his new head of the FCC. Pai and fellow Republican Michael O’Rielly now represent a majority at the agency.
Pai has been a staunch critic of the Title II rules since their inception. After becoming chairman, he moved swiftly to throw them out, despite resistance from major internet companies, smaller tech startups, and public personalities such as comedian John Oliver.
The agency is currently seeking public comment on Pai’s repeal proposal, and various “Day of Action” protesters will encourage users to leave comments in favor of the current rules.
Unsurprisingly, the groups behind the “Day of Action” effort were not receptive to AT&T’s message.
“The unvarnished truth is that AT&T has never been a supporter of net neutrality, and will likely never become one,” said Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy at Free Press, in an email. “Like Comcast, AT&T executives are attempting to fake the funk, pretending to support net neutrality while opposing the Title II rules that make it an enforceable reality. That’s akin to saying you support free speech but oppose the First Amendment.”
“AT&T are lying when they say they support net neutrality, while actively opposing it,” Greer said. “If they want to support the Title II protections that we have now, which prevent them from shaking down websites for extra fees as part of ‘paid prioritization’ schemes, we’d be glad to have them as part of this protest. Until then, they’re just making noise to continue their campaign of misinformation.”
As with most debates regarding net-neutrality, the issue here is one of trust. Pai, Republicans in Washington, and large ISPs like AT&T say the Title II net-neutrality rules are built on hypothetical fears and discourage ISPs from investing in their networks.
Proponents of the current net-neutrality rules say those investment fears are overblown and that Title II regulation is the only thing keeping ISPs from playing favorites on the internet. Without it, they say, ISPs would be free to give a leg up to their own sites and those of paid partners. Such practices would would in turn make it harder for smaller, less well-funded startups to compete, proponents argue.
AT&T has come under fire from net-neutrality advocates for not counting content from its DirecTV subsidiary against its users’ data cap while charging others for the same privilege, a practice known as “zero-rating.” Wheeler’s FCC expressed concern with the legality of the practice last year, but Pai stopped the agency’s investigation into zero-rating shortly after taking charge.
Congress could theoretically create a more permanent compromise, as AT&T notes, but with the ongoing turmoil in Washington, that seems unlikely to placate all parties involved. Wednesday’s protests may only highlight that.