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AT&T is joining a pro net neutrality rally even as it fights to kill current net neutrality rules

In ads, AT&T will stress it supports an open internet, just not the U.S. government’s current rules for enforcing it.

President Trump attends the American Leadership in Emerging Technology Event
AT&T Senior Executive Randall Stephenson
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

When Amazon, Facebook, Google and a chorus of startups and activists commence a massive online protest Wednesday to defend net neutrality, they’ll be joined by a company they don’t exactly believe is on their side: AT&T.

The wireless giant says it’s participating in the tech industry’s so-called “day of action,” stressing in a blog post that it believes in “preserving and advancing an open internet” — even though AT&T long has disagreed with staunch net neutrality advocates over how to enforce it.

Tech giants and consumer groups plan to rally Wednesday in support of rules implemented under the Obama administration that subject internet providers, like AT&T, Charter, Comcast* and Verizon, to utility-like regulation. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission under the leadership of its new Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, has sought to scrap those rules, arguing they are too heavy-handed.

Pai has the support of AT&T, which previously joined its counterparts in the telecom industry in suing the FCC — unsuccessfully — to quash the government’s existing net neutrality rules. But AT&T insisted its legal qualms with the FCC’s current regulations shouldn’t diminish the fact it believes in the principle of an open internet.

“This may seem like an anomaly to many people,” wrote Bob Quinn, the senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs at AT&T, “who might question why AT&T is joining with those who have differing viewpoints on how to ensure an open and free internet. But that’s exactly the point — we all agree that an open internet is critical for ensuring freedom of expression and a free flow of ideas and commerce in the United States and around the world.”

AT&T plans to signal its support for net neutrality in a series of advertisements running in Washington, D.C., this week, a spokesman said, as the company tries to convey its belief that internet providers should not block or slow down web traffic.

For all its efforts, though, AT&T surely won’t win much support from the organizers behind Wednesday’s day of action, a group called Battle for the Net, which is led by liberal-leaning groups Free Press, Demand Progress and Fight for the Future.

In its pitch to web users ahead of the Wednesday protest, Battle for the Net even accused AT&T of violating net neutrality in 2012, when it prevented some customers from using FaceTime on their iPhones. AT&T ultimately changed its practices.

Other ardent net neutrality supporters have chided AT&T in the past for offering streaming video through DirecTV in a way that doesn’t count against its customers’ monthly data plans. That arrangement, called zero-rating, even triggered an investigation by the FCC under former Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler. Shortly after President Donald Trump took office, however, the FCC ended the government’s probe of the practice.

For its part, AT&T stressed Tuesday that it has long supported the FCC’s previous approach to net neutrality — including the principles it released in 2005, which did not have the force of law, as well as a 2010 order that one of its competitors, Verizon, successfully challenged in federal court. It was the FCC’s loss in that legal fight that forced the agency back to the drawing board on net neutrality beginning in 2014. In the end, then-Chairman Wheeler opted to treat broadband providers like old-school telephone utilities under a portion of law known as Title 2.

AT&T and other telecom giants fiercely resisted the move, fearing in part that it might pave the way for the FCC to proffer additional regulation on the industry — including the way it offers and prices its services. Meanwhile, the company’s chief executive, Randall Stephenson, has charged that the government’s net neutrality rules have significantly curtailed his company’s investments in its own infrastructure.

“Saddling modern broadband infrastructure and investment decisions with heavy-handed, outdated telephone regulations creates an environment of market uncertainty that does little to advance internet openness,” Quinn said in his Tuesday blog post. “Instead, it jeopardizes the prospects for continued innovation and robust growth we have witnessed since the internet’s creation.”

In doing so, the AT&T executive also asked Capitol Hill to intervene. “Instead of having this debate again,” Quinn said, “Congress should act now to provide the clear statutory authority that guarantees an open internet for all consumers.”

* Comcast, through its NBCU arm, is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this website.

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