All hail AT&T! Champion of the open internet and users' privacy!

Also a bald-faced liar

When AT&T decided at the last minute it was going to join this week's "day of protest" over net neutrality, the reaction ranged from incredulity to bemusement.

Here was one of the corporate beasts that had actively and aggressively campaigned against the introduction of America's net neutrality rules, claiming to be in support of those self-same rules.

AT&T doesn't support the retention of the rules of course; it is wholeheartedly behind the effort by FCC chair Ajit Pai to get rid of them, despite significant public opposition. So why did it put out a press release and have its SVP of legislative affairs Bob Quinn write a blog post about the decision to join in?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, AT&T is doing the exact same thing in California's state capitol.

As legislators vote on a new bill that would install privacy protections for broadband users, AT&T has been lobbying Sacramento saying there's no point introducing the law since it is already legally obliged to follow FTC privacy rules.

However, at the exact same time, AT&T is arguing in court in San Francisco that the opposite is true – that it is exempt from FTC enforcement. So why would the company write down such claims when they are transparently untrue?

The answer unfortunately says a lot about one of the US' most powerful companies and its culture of cynical sneering.


It is the same sneering that has taken root in Congress in recent years and made Washington, DC, a focal point for people's anger and frustration. DC politics has always been a snake pit of double dealing and two-faced declarations, but the cancer has spread to the point that corporations – and politicians – have stopped even pretending otherwise.

The depth of partisan politics has made what used to be the balancer to this kind of contemptuous behavior – public condemnation – worthless. Even as people call others out for egregious activity, the waters are purposefully muddied with snide commentary from the other side. There used to be agreement on what was unacceptable – now there is only opposition to whatever the other lot said.

This disturbing sense that long-held social norms are being abandoned was captured in a discussion this week between late-night TV hosts Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.

Referring to the extraordinary news that Donald Trump Jr had taken a meeting with a Russian government lawyer offering damaging information on his father's presidential rival – and then repeatedly lied about it – Oliver noted: "This is something – as long as we live in a world where something means anything. Do we live in a world devoid of consequences now? This seems like a seismic event – but it might be nothing."

Colbert responded: "I'm used to a world where we're divided on things like abortion, or taxes, or government control of healthcare – polarizing issues," Colbert said. "Have we become a nation where colluding with a hostile foreign power to manipulate our election is a left-right thing?"

"I don't know, but the very fact that you just said that sentence out loud shows that we are turbo-fucked!" Oliver responded.


While President Trump's possible collusion with Russia is a wildly different topic to net neutrality and user privacy, the willingness of one of the country's largest corporations to transparently lie about its position and understanding of the law without fear of consequence is a direct result of a new level of hyper-cynicism invading the top levels of American society.

When it comes to net neutrality, companies like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T have long had to walk a policy tightrope. On the one hand, they are huge corporations that make their money from direct connections to millions of ordinary citizens. They have reputations and brands to protect and they all want their customers to see them in a positive light.

But on the other hand, net neutrality poses a significant risk to their market power and their profits. If cable companies are forbidden by law from delving into what passes through their direct connections to people's homes, then they risk becoming simple dumb suppliers of data.

Already more and more people are deciding to simply cut out cable companies' content offerings altogether because it is possible for content producers to send their material directly. No more massive bundles of 100 channels just because there is one you want to watch. No more premium bundles just to get ESPN.

Suddenly the cable companies lose all of their negotiating powers – and with it the vast fees they collect. For their entire lives, cable companies have been built on profiting from their control of content. Net neutrality threatens to undermine all that in one fell swoop.

And so the simple truth is that Big Cable will spend however much money it takes to try to make sure that it can still control content. Because without it, its future lies only in the high-cost, low-margin rollout of fiber.

As we have seen with other heavily disrupted markets such as the newspaper industry and the music industry, the internet can flip a decades-old revenue stream almost overnight. And it takes an enormous amount of energy and effort to re-adjust. Big Cable sees what has happened to other industries and is determined to find a way to stop it. Unlike the music and newspaper industries, however, it has two advantages: physical pipes and politics.

Next page: Sewers

Broader topics

Narrower topics

Other stories you might like

  • California's attempt to protect kids online could end adults' internet anonymity
    Websites may be forced to verify ages of visitors unless changes made

    California lawmakers met in Sacramento today to discuss, among other things, proposed legislation to protect children online. The bill, AB2273, known as The California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, would require websites to verify the ages of visitors.

    Critics of the legislation contend this requirement threatens the privacy of adults and the ability to use the internet anonymously, in California and likely elsewhere, because of the role the Golden State's tech companies play on the internet.

    "First, the bill pretextually claims to protect children, but it will change the Internet for everyone," said Eric Goldman, Santa Clara University School of Law professor, in a blog post. "In order to determine who is a child, websites and apps will have to authenticate the age of ALL consumers before they can use the service. No one wants this."

    Continue reading
  • FTC urged to probe Apple, Google for enabling ‘intense system of surveillance’
    Ad tracking poses a privacy and security risk in post-Roe America, lawmakers warn

    Democrat lawmakers want the FTC to investigate Apple and Google's online ad trackers, which they say amount to unfair and deceptive business practices and pose a privacy and security risk to people using the tech giants' mobile devices.

    US Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and House Representative Sara Jacobs (D-CA) requested on Friday that the watchdog launch a probe into Apple and Google, hours before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, clearing the way for individual states to ban access to abortions. 

    In the days leading up to the court's action, some of these same lawmakers had also introduced data privacy bills, including a proposal that would make it illegal for data brokers to sell sensitive location and health information of individuals' medical treatment.

    Continue reading
  • Brave Search leaves beta, offers Goggles for filtering, personalizing results
    Freedom or echo chamber?

    Brave Software, maker of a privacy-oriented browser, on Wednesday said its surging search service has exited beta testing while its Goggles search personalization system has entered beta testing.

    Brave Search, which debuted a year ago, has received 2.5 billion search queries since then, apparently, and based on current monthly totals is expected to handle twice as many over the next year. The search service is available in the Brave browser and in other browsers by visiting

    "Since launching one year ago, Brave Search has prioritized independence and innovation in order to give users the privacy they deserve," wrote Josep Pujol, chief of search at Brave. "The web is changing, and our incredible growth shows that there is demand for a new player that puts users first."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022