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AT&T vs. Google on Net neutrality

October 20, 2009 |  6:05 pm

Trying to stoke grass-roots opposition to Net neutrality regulations, AT&T lobbyist Jim Cicconi sent an e-mail to company employees urging them to blast the idea on the Federal Communications Commission's blog. And after reading Cicconi's description, I'm fired up too! According to Cicconi, the FCC wants to hurt AT&T and help ... Google! Of all the nerve! 

Of course, that's not exactly what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has in mind.

Cicconi's note was published by the Actuarial Outpost blog. Here's my favorite part:

The FCC shouldn't burden an industry that is bringing jobs and investment to the country, but if it is going to regulate the Internet it should do so fairly. The goal of the FCC should be to maintain a level playing field by treating all competitors the same. Any new rules should apply equally to network providers, search engines and other information services providers.

That's a bit like saying that any new equal-opportunity rules should apply not just to employers, but to the people they hire. Or that fair-housing laws need to be extended to renters....

The point here is to provide rules to prevent gatekeepers from emerging online, limiting the applications or services that people can use. The only companies with the power to do that are broadband ISPs, which provide the 21st century equivalent of a dial tone. Google can't stop people from using Yahoo's search engine or Skype's voice-over-IP services. An ISP can. Not that it would do something so brazen (OK, some wireless phone companies have blocked Skype from their data networks), but it might manage its network in a way that gives its partners' customers a better experience than their rivals can.

Another snippet from Cicconi's note:

Network companies have to be able to manage their networks to ensure the most economical and efficient use of bandwidth, and provide affordable broadband services for all users. Network management is essential for consumers to enjoy the benefits of new quality-sensitive applications and services. The FCC rules should not stop the promise of life-changing, cost-saving services such as telemedicine that depend on a managed network.

In other words, Google is trying to kill your grandmother! Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt: the new death panel. Ahh, we kid because we love. Here's what Genachowski had to say on this topic last month, in his speech outlining his six proposed Net neutrality principles:

I also recognize that there may be benefits to innovation and investment of broadband providers offering managed services in limited circumstances. These services are different than traditional broadband Internet access, and some have argued they should be analyzed under a different framework. I believe such services can supplement -- but must not supplant -- free and open Internet access, and that we must ensure that ample bandwidth exists for all Internet users and innovators. In the rulemaking process I will discuss in a moment, we will carefully consider how to approach the question of managed services in a way that maximizes the innovation and investment necessary for a robust and thriving Internet.

That's cautious bureaucratese for "I don't want to bar managed services, but I don't want to create a loophole that undermines the rule, either."

Here's a final bit from Cicconi's note:

Over the last few weeks an extraordinary number of voices expressed concern over news reports that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is poised to regulate the Internet in a manner that would drive up consumer prices, and burden companies like ours while exempting companies like Google.

Drive up consumer prices how? By enabling the commission to stop broadband providers from discriminating against legal applications or content online? Bear in mind that the rules wouldn't stop ISPs from managing their networks to combat congestion. They would simply say the management techniques couldn't pick winners and losers -- they'd have to be content- and application-neutral. 

Oh and by the way, Google isn't a broadband ISP (even on April Fool's Day). Should it become one, it would no longer be exempt. But for some reason, Cicconi thinks Google is a compelling villain in this drama. You would think a company that encourages people to use the Internet for just about everything in life would be a powerful ally to a company trying to sell wired and wireless connectivity (and iPhones). But that would clearly be wrong. I guess AT&T won't be bringing out an Android phone any time soon.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.