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AT&T CEO Calls for Congress to Pass ‘Internet Bill of Rights’

UPDATED WASHINGTON — AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson is calling for Congress to pass an “Internet Bill of Rights” as a solution to the long debate over net neutrality, including provisions that would require that internet providers not discriminate in the way they treat online traffic.

“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 wrote in a blog post on Wednesday. It also ran in an ad in major newspapers.

The company pushed for the FCC’s repeal last month of the regulatory foundation for its net neutrality rules, in which internet service was classified as a common carrier, also referred to in its wonkish term as “Title II.” The FCC, in a 3-2 party line vote, also rolled back rules that prohibit ISPs like AT&T from blocking or throttling content, or from selling fast-lanes of traffic so sites will have an advantage in reaching consumers.

In his blog post, Stephenson said AT&T, as a policy, already doesn’t block websites, censor online content, or “discriminate, or degrade network performance based on content. Period.”

But he said congressional action was needed.

“Legislation would not only ensure consumers’ rights are protected, but it would provide consistent rules of the road for all internet companies across all websites, content, devices, and applications,” he wrote.

The FCC’s majority, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, argued that the repeal was needed because the existing regulation was choking investment and created more uncertainty for ISPs.

Critics were quick to point out that AT&T fought the FCC’s net neutrality rules.

“We had an Internet Bill of Rights. It was called Title II and AT&T’s army of lobbyists did everything in their power to burn it down,” said Evan Greer, campaign director for advocacy group Fight for the Future.

Greer said “internet activists have been warning for months that the big ISPs’ plan has always been to gut the rules at the FCC and then use the ‘crisis’ they created to ram through bad legislation in the name of ‘saving’ net neutrality.

“That’s the tale they’re attempting to spin with this latest announcement, but it comes off as a bit pathetic at this moment, to be honest.”

Stephenson said congressional action is needed to resolve the issue because the FCC has gone through multiple iterations of net neutrality rules. “Regulators under four different presidents have taken four different approaches. Courts have overturned regulatory decisions. Regulators have reversed their predecessors,” he wrote.

But congressional action has stalled for years. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) recently introduced a bill to ban blocking or throttling of traffic, but it does not address an issue that has been a flashpoint: paid prioritization. Internet activists say rules are needed to restrict ISPs from selling “fast lanes” of traffic, or the internet would become a system of tiers like cable TV. Stephenson did not explicitly address that issue in his blog post.

Brian Roberts, the CEO of Comcast, the largest broadband provider, said that the company also supports congressional action.

“We’ve said that we support a free and open internet and we have been committed to enforceable open internet protections,” he said on the company’s earnings call on Wednesday. “We just thought Title II was unneccesary to guarantee consumers that open internet. We believe Congress will hopefully now act to put some enduring set of enforceable internet protections that can no longer get revisited and reversed with different administrations.”

Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy who was counselor to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, said that AT&T’s statement is “the ultimate in hypocrisy.”

She said that the company” has led the charge to repeal the Wheeler FCC’s strong broadband privacy rules and rules protecting Americans with landline phones, promoted state laws that ban communities from building their own broadband networks, and of course, has been a central player in the FCC’s recent repeal of its network neutrality rules and the agency’s abdication of its role protecting consumers and competition.”

She said that Stephenson’s proposal would “leave the FCC powerless, net neutrality and privacy protections weak and consumers and competition left out in the cold.”

In the wake of the FCC’s repeal of most of the net neutrality rules, Democrats have pushed back and vow to make net neutrality a 2018 midterm campaign issue.

All members of the Democratic Senate caucus and one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), said they support a procedural effort to reverse the FCC’s recent repeal of the rules. The effort, made possible by the Congressional Review Act, is just one vote shy of passage. Still, the legislative effort must pass the House and be signed by President Donald Trump. The White House has indicated that Trump sides with the FCC’s Republican majority.

Some states are also considering their own rules. The FCC’s latest order prohibits states from creating their own net neutrality regulations, but Montana’s governor Democrat Steve Bullock, signed an executive order this week requiring that recipients of state contracts abide by net neutrality principles.

“This is a simple step states can take to preserve and protect net neutrality. We can’t wait for folks in Washington D.C. to come to their senses and reinstate these rules,” he said. He invited other state governments to follow suit.

Update: An AT&T spokesman added this comment on paid prioritization.

“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. 

“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.”

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.

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