Posts Tagged ‘AT&T’

AT&T Is Asking Us To Trust Them

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Earlier this week, I noticed a bit of traffic hitting an old post of mine about AT&T’s unlikely sponsorship of libertarian ideologues as they attempt to stop net neutrality. (Unlikely given their history of constantly pleading for government intervention in their favor.) I followed the source to the AT&T’s forum but could find no link leading back to my rather critical post about AT&T.

So, today, I decided to check on what had happened. I didn’t see any easy way to contact the people posting or the moderators, so I posted myself asking if anyone knew what had happened. Tifa_Shines “answered” my question by censoring my link as “spam.”

Her message to me justifying her censorship said:

Links to material that contains political discussion and/or promotion of third party websites are violating the guidelines and will be removed.

And further that it is “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” to:

discuss[…] participant bans or other Moderator actions

I replied thanking her for “answering” my question — and that post was subsequently deleted. In my 5 minutes as a member of AT&T’s Community Forum, I discovered at least 2 rules:

  • Thou shalt not discuss the political activities AT&T engages in rather than providing decent service.
  • Thou shalt not discuss when AT&T censors you so as better to maintain the fiction of a ‘Community’ Forum.

Knowing that links AT&T, for whatever their reason, did not approve of were labeled “not relevant” and “spam,” I went back to the original page that was the source of traffic and found the offending, censored post — attempting to put AT&T’s bandwidth caps in the context of it’s efforts to fight net neutrality and their history of attacking every innovation from the Hush-A-Phone to the internet in their quest to create “the perfect system” without being distracted by that terrible thing called competition, and coincidentally, extracting the maximum profit from their customers.

In the scheme of things, the injustice of this censorship is rather small. AT&T is a private company and they can do whatever they want in a private forum that they run. Even the Westboro Baptist Church has rights.

But AT&T, by opposing net neutrality, is asking that we as a people trust them to not censor the internet.

They are asking for permission to change the structure of the internet by violating one of it’s foundational principles — net neutrality. (A principle that AT&T coincidentally opposed when government scientists were attempting to create the internet in the 1950s.)

They are asking that we trust them to not make websites that disagree with them slower and making those they approve of faster.

They are asking that we trust them as an ISP to provide access to content that criticizes them.

They are asking that we trust them not to quash the next disruptive technology that will use the internet in ways we haven’t yet thought of or that will be even better than the internet.

Their sordid history of pleading for special favors from the government to destroy any opponent or innovator (as detailed in many places, but most memorably and recently, in Tim Wu’s The Master Switch) — and their attempts to strangle the internet before it even existed — gives us little reason to trust them.

Their bankrolling of former libertarian economists and thinkers such as Adam D. Thierer (who before they sold out were vicious critics of AT&T) to lie about net neutrality gives us little reason to trust them.

AT&T’s attempts to game the political system with a “slush fund” sponsoring what former VP and Director of Communications, Dick Martin, called “so-called ‘grassroots’ organizations all over the place, astroturfing the countryside” give us little reason to trust them.

That various people AT&T has sponsored (including Grover Norquist) have now joined up with right wing religious fanatics to oppose net neutrality on the grounds that it will prevent the censorship of “obscenity and other objectionable content,” is yet another reason not to trust AT&T.

To summarize, AT&T is making the argument that they should be trusted as a steward of the internet and that the government should not allowed to protect one of the foundational principles of the internet that has made it a libertarian utopia of competition and free markets in the name of…libertarianism. Yet it’s history and current incarnation betray a culture of censorship and anti-competitive behavior that extends down to an Orwellian policing of it’s ‘Community’ Forum — labeling links it disagrees with as “Spam” and forbidding any discussion of it’s own censorship.

If it succeeds in overturning net neutrality, how much longer will it be before any website criticizing them is labeled as spam — just as a link to my blogpost criticizing them was? And how long before any attempt to discuss such labeling will be forbidden as against the user agreement you accept by getting your internet through AT&T?

Mad? Want to do something? Take a moment and email your Congressperson today to tell them how important net neutrality is to you.

Capitalism in Practice

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

I’ve started Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, a history of information industries in America; and having read Ayn Rand’s fictional Atlas Shrugged earlier this year — I wonder what Rand would make of this history of industrial warfare.

One of the motifs of Wu’s history is a theme of Rand’s novel — the extreme lengths the rich and powerful will go to in order to quash a disruptive technology. In the novel, it was Rearden steel — a metal stronger, cheaper, and better in every way than ordinary steel; in Wu’s history, it is every technological innovation from the phone to FM radio to television to the internet. In both history and the novel, the established industry used corrupt scientific experts, intimidation of suppliers, government regulation, and the blocking of financing to prevent the disruptive technology from taking off.

Rand’s novel though divides the everyone into two categories: the productive who are proud, competitive, inventive individuals who make everything of worth; and the looters who are unproductive and seek to leach off of the productive using the government, religion, and pity.

Wu’s history reveals a rather different story. There is no figure in history to match the strong, creative, independent, self-made industrial magnate Dagny Taggart. There are few who resemble her brother, the weak, dependent, self-loathing James Taggart who adds nothing of worth to the business except to plead with the government to stop his competitors because their superiority is unfair,

Only rarely do the inventors become rich. More often, they are outmaneuvered by corporate titans who use every means at their disposal to win. When Edwin Armstrong invented FM radio in 1934, he had pioneered a technology that allowed for better sound quality and that could fit more stations in the same radio spectrum with less interference. David Sarnoff, a major figure in the AM radio industry, was able to prevent FM radio from gaining wide acceptance until the 1970s through a combination of public propaganda, lobbying to change obscure rules relating to radio spectrum usage, and control over the manufacturing of radio players. David Sarnoff managed a vast business empire; he was at the cutting edge of innovations in radio and television. He won not because he was weak and unproductive (as Rand’s villains are) — but because he was ruthless.

Rand’s many fans aren’t typically the creative inventors. They are the very businessmen who see moral justification for their wealth in her philosophy. But they, like the businessmen in Wu’s history, are distinguished not for their purity of motive or love of competition, but their willingness to use any means at their disposal to achieve the corporate empire they seek. Unlike the fictional heroes of Rand’s novel, they do not seek competition. They seek a final victory and end to the competition.

In the theories of Rand and many of her acolytes, capitalism is about competition. In practice, capitalism has about brute strength and force used in restraint of competition.

[Image by Ron Schott licensed under Creative Commons.]

Right Wing Christians Against Net Neutrality Want To Censor Your Internet

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Introduction & Summary

AT&T and other internet service providers started out wanting to undermine one of the foundational principles of the internet (and a direct cause of it’s great economic growth) so that AT&T and the rest could pad their profit margin. To do this, they funded think tanks to come up with talking points and propaganda, they created political “grassroots” opposition, and financed candidates who would oppose net neutrality (who happened to be Republican). In buying off opinion leaders to oppose net neutrality, they ended up needing to get into bed with right-wing christianists who want to censor the internet, thus trading away yet another basic aspect of what has made the internet successful.

How successful has this campaign been? A few weeks ago, I came across a few pieces linking to a letter sent by conservative “luminaries” Grover Norquist, Phyllis Schlafly, and a number of others. This letter prompted Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government and Neil Stevens of RedState to announce that the right wing was finally coming together nearly unanimously against net neutrality. As Big Government describes it:

[T]he Right, as a virtually unified whole, has turned a page in the debate over a dynamic Internet, and now is staunchly and almost uniformly opposed to what some critics call “a government takeover of the Internet.”

Non-Controversial and Bi-Partisan

It wasn’t long ago that net neutrality was a non-controversial position with bipartisan advocates and the only opposition coming from the entrenched interests of AT&T and other broadband providers. The reason for the consensus was obvious: The success story of the internet in creating a libertarian near-utopia was the product of government engineers and forceful regulators — and net neutrality was one of the core principles built into the internet that allowed its remarkable, decentralized success and its wide-open field of competition. It was net neutrality that allowed Yahoo! to come from nowhere and become a success; and Google; and Flickr; and Facebook; and virtually every other web success. Net neutrality meant that Google could compete head-to-head with Yahoo! — and that the only thing that mattered was the quality of its product instead of the degree it could pay off internet service providers to speed up its connection.

It was government action to mandate an early form network neutrality that allowed the internet itself to be created and it was government engineers who designed these initial networks to be content-neutral. Beginning in the late 1960s, regulatory agencies forced AT&T to become a more neutral network (to allow non-AT&T products to connect to its phone lines, to allow other firms to lease its phone lines). Until that point, AT&T had been blocking “the emergence of competing data-communications companies” that eventually played a role in the creation of the internet.

AT&T and the “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet”

However, given AT&T’s history, this bipartisan consensus seemed unlikely to last. The right wing’s movement turn against net neutrality can be counted as evidence of the corruption of our political process. And it’s not the first time. As I documented previously, AT&T has always sought favorable regulations to allow it to take advantage of its customers — and it has a history of funding astroturf organizations and buying off “influential people” in political movements in order to push its agenda. Former top AT&T executive Dick Martin confirmed that Grover Norquist was one of those individuals AT&T went to in the 1980s.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the opposition to net neutrality began to be generated — as John McCain and other Republicans reversed their positions as they received large inflows of money from various broadband companies opposing net neutrality. The meme began to circulate on the right wing that net neutrality was a version of the Fairness Doctrine of the 1960s which mandated radio programs give time to opposing views when they spoke on controversial subjects. This description of net neutrality made no sense — except — as I wrote at the time as a “propaganda campaign … directed [not] to the public at large, but at conservative activists.  The Fairness Doctrine is not something that gets the blood of the average American boiling.  But it does evoke a Pavlovian response among conservative activists and right-wing radio listeners.”  As I had written earlier:

By equating the Fairness Doctrine with net neutrality, [they are] attempting to polarize the public away from a consensus in favor of net neutrality into two competing camps.

The Right’s Mistake

This most recent letter from Norquist, Schlafly, and other conservatives is interesting though — more than just as a representation of the epistemic closure of the right as it deludes itself into thinking net neutrality is a “government takeover of the internet” and a “Fairness Doctrine for the Internet” because believing and supporting each of these things means more money for right-wing causes. What’s most interesting to me is the political mistake they made — quite possibly the price they paid to get so many christianist activists to sign off on it — and the only flaw I have noticed in this multi-year lobbying campaign. They came out in favor of censorship of the internet:

Net neutrality regulations also call into question how obscenity and other objectionable content on the Internet is treated. Let’s be clear, all content is not equal and does not deserve equal treatment, but net neutrality prohibits broadband service providers from prioritizing the content consumers want and preventing peddlers of child pornography from having unblocked access to every home Internet connection. It is critically important for parents and families to continue to have access to the tools necessary to keep unwanted content out of the home.

All rather uninteresting pablum that doesn’t sound objectionable to the average reader. However, it suggests a weakness in the anti-net neutrality coalition — as these more christianist members will undoubtedly begin to paint this as a matter of  protecting our children through censorship. “All content is not equal,” they say. “We need the internet to protect family values.”

Net neutrality isn’t just what makes the internet a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity; net neutrality is the opposite of censorship — it not only protects my right to blog and be heard on controversial issues, but that good old American past-time of porn-watching. It’s opponents want to block access to the parts of the internet that conflict with their family’s values.

As I had some trouble finding the full letter, I’m enclosing it below (with my source as RedState and the Institute on Religion and Public Policy [pdf]):


Net Neutrality Is What Made the Internet a Libertarian Utopia

Friday, October 30th, 2009

[Forgive me, because this morning I am feeling expansive, and as such, I am omitting the usual qualifiers that constrain my opinions.]

The internet is the nearest thing to a libertarian utopia in the history of the world. It creates the closest thing we have seen to a frictionless market, a perfectly free market – and it is, for the most part, tax free. It allows the closest thing we have to maximum free speech and freedom from censorship. It allows every individual a platform to be themselves, or whatever else they choose to be. It circumvents and undermines governments that attempt to control it. It was created to allow for the maximum of freedom with a minimum of cost. It is resistant to centralized control – and makes it more and more possible to decentralize power. It has unleashed the forces of innovation and creativity that libertarian theory has always posited would come with freedom. It is perhaps the greatest force for expanding liberty in the world since the American revolution (or the fall of Communism.)

How did the internet develop this way? How did this profoundly destabilizing and decentralized network develop? Was it some Galtian genius who set up servers on cargo ships in international waters? Was it some giant corporation which decided it could profit from it? Not quite. And perhaps the story of how the internet developed helps explain why is it that liberals and not libertarians are the ones defending the internet.

Government engineers designed the internet as a network that was decentralized and thus “network neutral,” so as to be resistant to a nuclear assault on the United States. It was designed to be adaptable. Many academics worked on the project on behalf of the government – and were among the first to gain access to it. The large corporations of the time that controlled America’s communications grid – primarily AT&T – were resistant and attempted to strangle this competitor in its infancy, as they tried to discriminate against the data being sent over their lines. Corporations, attempting to derive maximum profit from their assets, also attempted to exert maximum control. AT&T only allowed “authorized” objects to connect to its network – and in fact people did not own their own phones. They licensed them from AT&T. Thus, it was only forceful intervention by the FCC that allowed the internet to develop, that opened up the communications network of the United States to innovation.

AT&T and other corporations, attempting to add to their profits, now seek to find another stream of revenue by undermining net neutrality, one of the foundational principles of the internet itself. They seek to introduce new frictions into this nearly frictionless market and to prevent it from becoming so easily a platform for individuals. Opponents of net neutrality claim that the several attempts by corporations to create policies that were contrary to net neutrality should be ignored because they did not succeed. (They did not succeed because the FCC shut them down.) They claim that there is no need to articulate clear principles about what net neutrality is because so far, the attempts to undermine it have failed. They claim government regulation regarding this would retard “innovation” – when it was government intervention that in fact created the possibility for such innovation.

This libertarian utopia was created by government engineers and protected from powerful corporations by forceful regulation.

Many corporate libertarians (such as Adam Thierer) have embraced the fallacy that the government is the only threat to individual liberties, or at least that the government is always a greater threat to liberty than any other force. They also often count corporations as “individuals” as they are considered such by the law. Thus they have a knee jerk opposition to regulation of any sort – even regulation meant to allow their own values to flourish. They favor freedom for corporations from government over freedom of individuals from corporations because they see the government as the primary evil in the world.

The are many different varieties of liberals, but the group of which I count myself believes that large corporations as well as government both are major threats to individual liberties. We favor smart regulation that does not restrict individuals, but instead restricts corporations who often use their power and clout to deprive individuals of rights. We agree with many libertarian attempts to constrain the government in the area of national security and attempts to make the government more transparent and accountable – but believe that government intervention in some form or another is often needed to restrain corporations from taking away the rights of individuals. We realize that the free markets exist not in spite of the government but because of it, because of a balance between governmental intervention and the rights of individuals and the rights of corporations.

[Image by sea legs snapshots licensed under Creative Commons.]

AT&T: An Unlikely Opponent of Government Regulation

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

AT&T has emerged as the main opponent of net neutrality – while it has tried to paint Google as its main proponent (a surprising move given Google’s popularity.)

Yet, as AT&T now embraces the language of the free market and cloaks itself in libertarian rhetoric about government interference and regulation, it’s worth considering its history. AT&T’s business model is and has always been about manipulating the government for its private advantage. (In this it isn’t much different than most corporations – except in its spectacular success.) According to Adam D. Thierer (whose name will come up later), under company president Theodore Vail during the early 20th century, AT&T’s main goals were:

the elimination of competitors, the befriending of policymakers and regulators, and the expansion of telephone service to the general public.

By 1913, as AT&T had bought up many competitors and driven many smaller companies out of business in local phone service and taken a dominant position in long-distance calling, the Justice Department became concerned that AT&T was becoming a monopoly to the detriment of competition. At this point, AT&T voluntarily entered into the Kingsbury Commitment to avoid the otherwise inevitable regulation – agreeing to withdraw from certain markets (divesting itself from Western Union which it had just bought for example) and to stop its war on smaller local calling companies. They secured their advantage though and were able to continue to solidify its lucrative effectively monopolistic position in long-distance.

As the company continued to solidify its position, it was wary of inciting government efforts to break up its monopoly and so avoided typical practices of monopolies such as raising prices quickly. But during World War I, the company was nationalized and controlled by the Postmaster General. AT&T, now safe from monopoly concerns, immediately lobbied the postmaster general to allow it to raise rates significantly, which under normal circumstances would have triggered concern about monopolistic abuse of power. But, as a government entity during a time of war, AT&T was given this allowance: AT&T raised its rates 20% in the first half year under government control. In addition, the government decided to compensate the company with $13 million “to cover any losses they may have incurred, despite the fact that none were evident,” as Thierer points out.

Subsequently, AT&T began lobbying for government regulation of long-distance rates to solidify their advantage as the de facto monopoly of the long-distance. They succeeded in return for their promise to extend universal telephone coverage. This bargain with the government as well as AT&T’s prestige and government contracts gave it great pull with the FCC such that the FCC protected it. Thierer again:

Beside its powers to regulate rates to ensure they were “just and reasonable,” the FCC was also given the power to restrict entry into the marketplace. Potential competitors were, and still are required to obtain from the FCC a “certificate of public convenience and necessity.” The intent of the licensing process was again to prevent “wasteful duplication” and “unneeded competition.”

…[The FCC would] use its power in favor of AT&T when potential competitors threatened the firm’s hegemony.

Thierer’s history ends here. But AT&T never stopped lobbying the government for favors. In the late 1950s, as it attempted to block any competitors from even improving its product. AT&T owned all devices connected to its network, merely licensing phones to its customers – and maintained the right to block the sale of any “unauthorized foreign attachments” and terminate service to anyone who used them.

AT&T continued to fight for special government favors in the 1980s and 1990s – as Dick Martin, former head of public relations for AT&T and author of Tough Calls: AT&T and the Hard Lessons Learned from the Telecom Wars, explained in an email interview with me – attempting to block competitors from getting into long distance as well as lobbying on more esoteric issues, as they attempted to reduce “access charges (i.e., the per-minute rate the local phone companies charge to originate or complete a long distance call) [and] the cost of unbundled network elements (i.e., what local phone companies charge local competitors for leasing parts of their network.)”

Perhaps most relevant to its fight now against net neutrality, AT&T attempted to prioritize voice communications travelling over its wires, discriminating against data. This would have strangled the internet in its infancy. AT&T would have done so because – as Lawrence Lessig points out in The Future of Ideas, AT&T’s closed network of the early to mid-20th century was the exact opposite of the internet:

One network centralizes creativity; the other decentralizes it. One network is built to keep control of innovation; the other constitutionally renounces the right to control. One network closes itself except where permission is granted; the other dedicates itself to a commons.

How then was the internet able to develop when to be successful it required the wires and connections only AT&T could provide? How then was the freedom of the internet able to develop when it needed to utilize AT&T’s tightly controlled network? What entity was able to take on AT&T to force it to allow the most open market ever constructed to enter its closed system? Lessig explains, it was the government:

Beginning in 1968, when [the government] permitted foreign attachments to telephone wires, continuing through the 1970s, when it increasingly forced the Bells to lease lines to competitors, regardless of purpose, and ending in the 1980s with the breakup of AT&T, the government increasingly intervened to assure that this most powerful telecommunications company would not interfere with the emergence of competing data-communications companies.

Along every step of the way though, AT&T has fought and lobbied to get the government on its side and to manipulate the political process for the good of the company’s bottom line. Martin explained that one of the key people who has remained at the top level of AT&T during its many shake-ups has been Jim Cicconi, their top lobbyist:

When we were fighting off the Bells’ entry into long distance, Cicconi had a $60 million war chest, separate from his regular budget, for hiring political operatives around the country. He used the money to throw obstacles in the path of the Bells.  He started and funded so-called “grassroots” organizations all over the place, astroturfing the countryside. His staffers searched out influential people who leaned in our direction and then funded their efforts on the issues that mattered to us. So, for example, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Relief, received enough funding to set up special interest groups that have only a tangential connection to reforming the tax system. For example, the Media Freedom Project, which is a “project” of Americans for Tax Reform currently opposes net neutrality. As does another ATR “affiliate” The Property Rights Alliance.  Similarly, the Alliance for Worker Freedom, another ATR affiliate, is opposed to another AT&T bugaboo, union card check. And of course, ATR is a member of the Internet Freedom Coalition, among other groups opposed to net neutrality. I’d be willing to bet that these groups still receive funding from Cicconi’s war chest. Of course, the other side does the same thing.  Or at least that was Ciconni’s excuse when anyone challenged him on any of this stuff.

It seems AT&T is once again engaging in these tactics – as Matthew Lasar of Ars Technica reported yesterday:

AT&T Senior Vice President Jim Cicconi has sent out a e-mail to the company’s entire managerial staff urging them to deluge the FCC’s new discussion site with anti-net neutrality comments.

AT&T has a history of lobbying the government for any regulation or deregulation that best suits its interest. Its success is not that of a free market competitor who always had the best ideas (though it often has had good ideas), but of a savvy political operator who has thrown its weight around and manipulated public opinion, the political process, and regulators to undermine its competitors and strengthen its profits.

Now, they are funding groups opposed to government regulation and interference in the market – specifically on the matter of net neutrality. Adam D. Thierer, who wrote the article that provided most of the critical history I found of AT&T’s manipulation of the government to its own benefit, now works for The Progress and Freedom Foundation Project, whose main sponsor according to their website is AT&T. To my knowledge, it was Thierer who began the erroneous right wing talking point that net neutrality is a fairness doctrine for the internet which has now been repeated by Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn as well as on many, many right wing radio shows and blogs.

While AT&T claims to be promoting internet freedom by opposing network neutrality, it was only robust government regulation of AT&T that allowed the internet to develop at all. The freedom of the internet was not some natural occurrence – but the deliberate decision by the engineers at the Defense Department and then government regulators, oftentimes while stridently opposed by AT&T. The corporate libertarians such as Adam Thierer hired by AT&T to promote its agenda only seem to see government intervention impinging on freedom – rather than seeing that the power of a large corporation can be just as destructive. Of course, as Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

N.B. Neither Adam D. Thierer nor AT&T have responded to any attempts to contact them, though the post will be updated in the event that they do.

Update: Michael Balmoris of AT&T responded to my specific queries regarding net neutrality and AT&T’s fight against it with this vague pablum:

AT&T has long supported the principle of an open Internet and has conducted its business accordingly, and we support the FCC’s oversight of the wireline broadband market through case-by-case enforcement of the current four broadband principles. Furthermore, AT&T shares both President Obama’s and Chairman Genachowski’s vision of an open Internet—an Internet with a level playing field that benefits consumers and stimulates investment, innovation, and jobs.

[Image in the public domain.]