George Orwell would be proud of AT&T's latest series of ads.
The company is attempting to convince us that it favors Net neutrality and an open Internet, when in fact it is lobbying hard for the opposite result. The strategy was foreshadowed in October when Sen. John McCain, the recipient of more telco money in the last two years than anybody in the U.S. Senate, authored a bill disingenuously labeled "The Internet Freedom Act of 2009." But if McCain and AT&T were being honest, they would have called it "The Internet Robber Baron Act."
More than semantics are at stake here. The new chairman of the FCC is moving to put teeth into a series of rules that would do much to guarantee real Net neutrality. Naturally, the big carriers oppose this. But given the political climate in the country and their companies' record of alienating consumers and businesses that need an open Internet, AT&T's spinmeisters know that it can't just come out and say what it really means.
Instead, the company cleverly disguises its real intent with a campaign aimed at convincing the public that, as Orwell put it in "1984," ignorance is strength. OK, that's a bit harsh. But there is going to be a big fight about this in 2010, and whether we are IT professionals, consumers, or both, we need to know exactly what's going on.
What Net neutrality really means
Early on, the debate about Net neutrality centered on the issue of tiered or metered pricing. Carriers argued with some justification that customers who use more bandwidth -- and, thus, more network resources -- should pay accordingly. That's not too different than charging by the gallon for water service or by the kilowatt-hour for electricity.
That debate is largely over, though it's not clear which carriers will implement tiered pricing and how much it will cost consumers. (AT&T recently moved to start such tiered pricing for data services.)
The argument now is much more complex and centers on control of content and applications on both the wired and wireless Internet. If a carrier can pick and choose among different types of content and different types of applications, its competitors (and, ultimately, the users) are severely disadvantaged.