Meet the new boss . . . Same as the old boss

Common Cause does its best to disabuse anyone of the idea that Ed Whitacre’s retirement as head of AT&T will bring a change in the company’s approach to network neutrality and the Internet.

According to Common Cause, Whitacre’s successor Randall Stephenson is (if anything) just as bent on laying a proprietary claim to be able to control and price what travels over AT&T’s network. With the former BellSouth now included in AT&T’s service footprint, the company now is the primary telecom provider in about 22 states. It also owns the ‘old’ AT&T’s national data network and the former Cingular wireless network. The company is the largest communications company in the United States and, any way you cut it, a force to be reckoned with.

So, who leads the company has a material impact on the lives of a large number of businesses and consumers starting with AT&T’s customers.

Americans generally distrust large institutions, ranging from government to corporations. AT&T and its new leader are apparently bent on ensuring that the fires for that distrust remain stoked.

For starters, Mr. Stephenson opposes the idea that if an AT&T (i.e., BellSouth/Cingular) customer that you can access video from non-AT&T sources via the Internet. Common Cause provides this bit of evidence:

In 2005, Stephenson was asked whether his DSL customers would be able to watch live video from any website. “Oh no,” Stephenson declared. “We’re going to control the video on our network. The content guys will have to make a deal with us.” That could leave all the other “content guys” who can’t afford to make a deal with AT&T – independent musicians and artists, nonprofits and charities, small businesses and entrepreneurs – locked out from reaching Internet users who use AT&T to access the ‘Net.

Think about that for a minute.

Left to the preferences of Whitacre/Stephenson, there would be no Google, no eBay, no iTunes. Why? Because AT&T would, first, require these services to be customers of the company and, second, then charge them a premium in order to ensure that their packets (all of these operations run over Internet Protocol networks) get express treatment. Oh, consumers would still pay their bandwidth fees as well, meaning that AT&T intends to milk providers, consumers and (inevitably) take a slice of the revenue stream for content as it tightens its grip on network infrastructure.

Did you know you can now pay bills using your cell phone (NYT archived $)? Here are some key paragraphs from that NYT story:

AT&T and several banks, including BancorpSouth, SunTrust and Wachovia, are working on a common banking application that can also be downloaded or preinstalled on cellphones. The company creating the software is Firethorn, which is based in Atlanta and works with banks and cellular companies to create a common interface. The idea is that customers will have a standard way of banking on their phones — leading to less confusion — and carriers like AT&T won’t have to design individual applications to accommodate each of the hundreds of different banks around the country.

I tried BancorpSouth’s service using Firethorn’s software on an LG CU500v flip phone. The experience was similar to that of Citi Mobile; it allowed me to view account information or make transactions, including last-minute bill payments. There were delays of 4 to 5 seconds in switching between accounts, but in many ways it was simpler and easier to master than online Web banking on a PC. The only drawback is that you have to be an AT&T/Cingular subscriber.

So, phones will be mobile ATMs. Do the words “transaction fee” come to mind?

So, Stephenson views AT&T’s network as an opportunity for the company to operate a toll booth on traffic and skim a percentage or charge an outright fee on commerce that happens to flow over the network.

As Common Cause correctly points out, AT&T will have most customers over a barrel:

To make matters worse, most Americans don’t have much choice when it comes to high speed Internet providers, so they won’t be able to switch to another company if their Internet provider starts blocking or slowing down certain websites. Usually the only options are the telephone company (high early termination fees if you cancel your service) or the cable company (often prohibitively more expensive).

Of course, we will have more choice here in Lafayette than most places thanks to the LUS fiber system which will undercut the sometimes cozy duopoly relationship that phone and cable companies frequently develop in markets they share.

But, what I find most disturbing about Stephenson is his membership on something called the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee. Common Cause describe it this way:

The NSTAC is a secretive panel made up of industry executives who provide advice to the President on national security, emergency preparedness and other communications policy. Its meetings are almost always closed to the public for national security reasons. And its website claims that documents and records produced by NSTAC are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act because it is not technically a federal “agency.”

What immediately comes to mind here is the Bush administration’s illegal warrant less wiretapping program. AT&T has been sued over its cooperation in that program. Stephenson, as a member of the NSTAC board and as a member of AT&T’s leadership team was, no doubt, aware of the program and probably encouraged AT&T to cooperate with it.

What is known is pretty grim, from a Constitutional stand point but the program and AT&T’s cooperation may well have been much more extensive than what is currently known by the public. The hints came in the dramatic Senate testimony of former Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Comey about the race to beat Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card to the hospital bed of then-ill Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The reason for the race was that Comey and apparently the head of the FBI Robert Muller and even Ashcroft threatened to resign if the wiretap program that they believed was illegal.

What was that program? And, how was AT&T enabling it to operate?

So, to sum up: AT&T is now headed by a man who believes network ownership is an excuse to tax anything that moves over it; that if you’re in business and your data crosses the AT&T network AT&T is entitled to a cut; and that this right of ownership also gives the company the right to engage in any kind of activity the president’s attorney says is legal.

Looks like Big Brother has got a friend at the head of Big Mama.

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