If you hadn’t noticed, the telecom industry has been on a tear lately, completely dismantling most government oversight of its natural monopolies. From killing net neutrality to gutting FCC and state authority to rein in ISP bad behavior, companies like AT&T dream of a future where neither competiton nor even modest regulatory oversight prevent it from its god-given mission to rip off and otherwise overcharge the company’s largely captive customer bases.
At the same time, AT&T is now part of a coordinated effort between the telecom sector and the Trump administration to saddle Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google with additional regulation while demonizing them as out of control monsters. Why? As AT&T and Comcast push deeper into the online ad industry, they’re looking for any advantage they can get against entrenched search and social media giants. And, given their political power, domination of the broadband last mile, and the government’s apathy to both problems, those advantages run deep.
At the heart of this little stage play sits our national conversation about what new privacy laws might look like. Last week, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing consumer advocates weren’t even invited to. Instead, companies with utterly terrible track records of privacy abuses were given starring roles in dictating just what said privacy legislation should look like. That included Facebook but also AT&T, which for weeks has been quick to claim on multiple fronts that it just really, really, loves the idea of comprehensive privacy protections for consumers:
AT&T has long supported comprehensive federal privacy legislation to protect consumers and give businesses clear and consistent guidelines on the collection and use of consumer data… AT&T wants to be a constructive voice in finding a real and durable solution.
Which is weird, because “constructive” isn’t really the best word to explain AT&T’s lobbying tactics on the privacy front lately. The company was a major player in efforts last year to obliterate modest FCC privacy guidelines for broadband providers before they could even take effect. Those rules largely just mandated that ISPs be transparent about what data is collected and who it’s being sold to, while requiring opt in consent for particularly sensitive consumer data like your financial background. AT&T has played a pretty major role in lying to scuttle state-level protections as well.
Yet here’s AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, again this week proclaiming that his company is breathlessly dedicated to real privacy protections, while lamenting the fact that states are now trying to fill the void in the wake of federal apathy on this subject:
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson on Tuesday made a pitch for Congress to “step up” and create “rules of the road” on consumer privacy that would apply to all companies across the country.
“We think one ranger. There ought to be one regulator for everybody,” the exec said at The Atlantic Festival in Washington. Without that, Stephenson said states like California will step into the breach and create their own rules.
Speaking of the media, tech and communications industries, he said, “To handcuff those sectors with 50 different rules of the road across 50 different states and different regulators is a disaster for an uncertain business model.”
That takes some serious stones. Again, AT&T just got done obliterating meaningful FCC privacy rules that didprecisely what Stephenson claims he was looking for, something you’d think any press outlet writing about this would mention. Like the ISP assault on net neutrality, the attack on the FCC’s privacy rules (and overall authority) created an accountability vacuum states then rushed to fill. A bunch of fractured, state-level protections isn’t ideal, but it was a problem directly caused by AT&T’s own lobbying. That really shouldn’t be forgotten.
It’s understood that people have differing opinions on what real privacy rules should look like and whether we need them at all. But whatever your position, it shouldn’t be hard to see that companies like AT&T are the very last folks we want having too much input on what these rules should look like. From actively modifying user packets to covertly track them around the internet to trying to charge consumers more money to protect their privacy, AT&T’s the poster child for not really giving a damn about consumer privacy. And when efforts to pass even modest rules do arrive, AT&T lobbyists work to kill them.
That’s because none of the giant companies being tasked with defining our potential looming privacy law (be it Facebook or AT&T) want a law that actually accomplishes much of anything aside from “putting the debate to bed” so they can get back to tracking you around the internet without much transparency or meaningful consent. Real rules would empower, inform, and educate consumers, who’d then opt out of huge swaths of data monetization efforts, costing ad-driven companies billions. They like to talk a lot about “compromise” and “building consensus,” but these companies really only want one thing: a federal privacy law that looks good on paper, but has so many loopholes to be largely useless, outside of the goal of pre-empting any tougher, state-level privacy efforts.
In AT&T’s case, if those laws happen to saddle Silicon Valley ad competitors with additional burdens AT&T and its subsidiary DirecTV may not have to face (after having just effectively convinced the FCC to blow itself up from within), so much the better.