AT&T's perversion of 'free speech' would let it control the Internet

The Constitution's framers must be rolling in their graves in this abuse of the First Amendment, which the Obama Administration is caving on

Poor AT&T. First, we get the official word courtesy of Consumer Reports that Ma Bell is the planet's worst major wireless carrier. Now we hear the embattled giant is worried its First Amendment rights are about to be violated by those meanies at the Federal Communications Commission.

No, I'm not making this up. AT&T and its ally/rival Verizon are claiming in legal filings with the FCC that regulation of the Internet would deprive them of the right to free speech. Other big quasi-monopolies have used that argument to get what they want; the very same claim years ago by cable TV operators succeeded in allowing Comcast, Time Warner, and all the others to keep an iron lock on programming, says Chris Witteman, a communications attorney in San Francisco.

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Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that corporations do indeed have First Amendment rights to donate money to political causes, the climate has never been better to extend that logic to the Internet.

"Let us be clear: If the cable or telecommunications network owners are allowed to control the entirety of what transpires on 'their' networks, that is the end of the Internet as we know it," writes David C. Bergmann of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, an advocacy group for ratepayers.

AT&T-style free speech means control over everyone else's
What would the right to AT&T/Verizon-style free speech mean? It means the companies that provide Internet access would be free to choose what content moves on the network at what speeds and for how much money. If your company has an app or a service that competes with one of those giants -- too bad. The carriers' claim of free speech says you have no right to route that app or service through AT&T's or Verizon's network. (Never mind your free speech rights, of course.)

Perhaps AT&T will next follow Comcast's lead and decide to tell you what devices your company can attach to the network. You may find your thin clients, VPN-equipped PCs, VoIP devices, or iPads one day disallowed ostensibly because they cause harm but in reality because their use isn't to AT&T's own financial benefit.

The FCC's knight in shining armor has given up the fight
The federal rule maker we thought would stop this kind of nonsense -- FCC chairman Julius Genachowski -- is playing right into the carriers' hands. Genachowski has surrendered to the special interests, putting forward a withered version of Net neutrality that will protect almost no one and give the big carriers nearly all of what they want. For that, he's the Tech's Bottom Line Bozo of the Month.

I'm not happy to do this. When Genachowski was appointed by President Barack Obama, there was hope he'd fight to rein in the huge corporations that control both the wired and the wireless Internet. He hasn't done it. After a federal court ruled that the way the FCC was trying to regulate the Internet was out of bounds, he proposed his "third way," a smart strategy that would have allowed the FCC to regulate the big Internet providers as telecommunications carriers, which is what they are.

But he's backed off from the third way -- way off. While paying lip service to the principle that carriers should not discriminate against different types of content moving over their networks, Genachowski's proposal has no teeth. He gave hints of what he will propose at the FCC's meeting on Dec. 21, but not the details.

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