AT&T Accuses Google Of Violating Net Neutrality

Last Updated Sep 26, 2009 2:21 AM EDT

AT&T is trying to play a vicious game of "I know you are, but what am I" with Google, using the Federal Communications Commission as a name-calling playground. In a letter to the FCC, AT&T's Robert Quinn called Google
one of the most noisome trumpeters of so-called "net neutrality" regulation
According to AT&T's screed, Google is in violation of net neutrality rules because its Google Voice application blocks certain services it doesn't like. One of the principles of net neutrality is that carriers and owners of networks shouldn't discriminate against other services. Here's the thing, though: Google isn't a carrier or a network, and Google Voice is itself nothing but an application.

The idea of this spurious claim is not so much to make a convincing argument to the FCC, but to muddy the waters of public opinion by claiming that
  • Google violates the same net neutrality provisions by which it wants other to abide; and
  • that rather than worrying about 'so-called' net neutrality (which, in case you hadn't guessed, AT&T opposes), the FCC should occupy itself with the more troublesome task of intercarrier compensation, a relatively old system by which carriers compensate one another for carrying the other's traffic.
While the net neutrality argument doesn't actually hold water, it's apparently good enough to confuse the likes of Saul Hansell, whose influence is disproportionate to his understanding of the issues because he writes for the New York Times.

Indeed, Hansell is duped into giving voice (if you'll pardon the pun) to AT&T's specious argument, writing
Whether AT&T is right depends on all sorts of technical interpretations of the commission's policies
There is, in fact, no "whether AT&T is right." Again, Google Voice is an application, and Google doesn't own a network. But Hansell falls into two traps here: the notion that objectivity requires him to present each side as having a point (which is only the case if both sides actually have one), and the idea that this is all too complicated for us mere mortals (himself included) to understand. So where this issue of Google's technology meets abstruse regulatory syntax, Hansell throws up his hands. He writes:
After a week trying to understand those rules, I ran away screaming.
I guess we're supposed to accept that if it's too complicated for Hansell, it's beyond understanding by any mere mortals. That is not at all the case, in fact, as you can see from reading how the FCC itself summarizes the situation (and its planned reform):
Interstate access charge rules [were changed following] the 1984 breakup of the former AT&T monopoly [and again] following passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Dramatic changes in the marketplace since that time, however, have placed increasing strains on the existing intercarrier compensation system. For example, most wireless services were not available in the 1980s. More recently, the introduction of bundled service offerings and new services, such as voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, have blurred traditional industry and regulatory distinctions, and posed questions that were not contemplated when the intercarrier compensation rules were initially created. [So,] the Commission has undertaken comprehensive reform of intercarrier compensation.
Boy, when you put it like that, it sure does sound complicated. Um-- not. It's a little disheartening to see AT&T succeed so easily at spreading what's commonly known as FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).
  • Michael Hickins

    Michael Hickins has written about technology and business for BNET, InformationWeek, InternetNews.com, eWEEK -- where he was executive editor from 2007-2008 -- The Curator, Pseudo.com, Multex Investor, Reuters, and Conde Nast's WWD.com. Hickins is the author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, a collection of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. He also published Blomqvist, a picaresque novel set in 11th century Europe, in 2006. Hickins remains passionately interested in the intersections of business, technology, politics and culture, and endures a life-long obsession with baseball. He is married with two children and lives in Manhattan.