Friday, April 27, 2007

AT&T's New Boss Wants Your World Delivered to Him

Originally published at Huffington Post

Soon after AT&T chief Ed Whitacre announced his plans to accept his company's $161 million retirement offer, the phone colossus announced Big Ed's replacement.

Randall Stephenson, onetime SBC Chief Operating Officer, will attempt to fill the shoes of the man who once called all of us "nuts" for thinking the Internet should remain free from phone company discrimination.

Big Ed Version 2.0

Whitacre Version 2.0

But this apple clearly hasn't fallen far from the tree. Echoing his predecessor, Stephenson was quoted in an industry newsletter saying: "Oh no. We're going to control the video on our network. The content guys will have to make a deal with us."

Stephenson's statement makes it clear that he intends to carry forward Whitacre's plan to block or degrade high-speed content of anyone who has not struck a special deal with AT&T.

It is typical for broadband providers to bill their customers, and only their customers, for access to the Internet. What Stephenson and Whitacre are talking about is a scheme to ransom off access to these customers to the highest bidders -- to add another toll, charging sites for first-in-line access to your connection.

For AT&T it's not just about delivering "your world" but about charging others for the privilege to enter "your world" in front of those that you'd prefer. The problem, of course, is that they're selling out your free choice in the process.

Stephenson scheme forces users to the sites that AT&T prefers. The phone and cable companies claim that this sort of discriminatory “double dipping” -- charging both consumers and content providers -- is necessary for them to provide the high speed services that Americans demand.

"While it’s one way to earn cash, it’s just too close to the Tony Soprano vision of networking: Use your position to make threats and extract payments," writes Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu. "This is similar to the outlawed, but still common, 'payola' schemes in the radio world. Yes, there’s money in such schemes, but they aren’t good for the industry or the country."

Whitacre and Stephenson's scheme is a fundamental shift in the neutral way the Internet has always worked. In essence, it takes away user choice -- the most basic tenet of the Internet – and hands it to AT&T.

It also tilts the Web’s even playing field to favor the larger corporations, while handicapping the Internet’s true innovators who can't afford to buy in to AT&T's protection racket.

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