In an apparent shift in position, anti-net neutrality telco AT&T has called on US regulator the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to preserve the open character of the internet.
James Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, argued in an open letter sent yesterday that "preserving the open character of the internet is critically important to ensuring that all consumers have the opportunity to be creators of content and innovators from their homes or their garages".
However, in a tone more typical of AT&T's previously sceptical attitude to net neutrality, the letter goes on to urge the regulator to protect and expand incentives that drive the substantially private investment necessary to realise the full potential of the internet.
The company also insisted that the FCC should move away from the creation of strict non-discrimination rules, as the impact on broadband providers could stifle investment in networks.
"A strict non-discrimination rule could limit the availability of creative and innovative services that consumers may purchase, and could cause a ban on voluntary commercial agreements for the paid provision of value-added broadband services," it said.
Instead, AT&T argued that the FCC should focus on "unreasonable and anti-competitive" forms of discrimination that could adversely affect customers.
"This would allow the FCC to enable innovation to occur at all levels of the internet, but still maintain the ability to respond on a case-by-case basis to allegations of unreasonable and anti-competitive conduct."
However, the letter was slammed by rights groups. Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a group that campaigns for net neutrality, said in a statement that the letter added "nothing to the net neutrality debate".
Sohn also argued that AT&T was trying to draw an imaginary line between types of discrimination.
"The internet has functioned as well as it has because of control of the crucial roles at each end of the network. Side deals made by a carrier like AT &T and a content provider or another company take control out of the hands of the consumer," he said.
Sohn added that it was unfortunate that AT&T has resorted to the "old tactic" of threatening to not invest in its network if it doesn't get what it wants.
"The growth of the internet will be driven by consumer demand, not by gimmicks," he concluded.
Ben Cross, policy director of media reform group Free Press, accused AT& T of trying to offer the FCC a "false compromise".
"It is couched as a compromise, but it is little more than an effort to cajole a toothless rule out of the FCC," he said in a statement. "Make no mistake, AT&T opposes net neutrality."
The FCC voted in October to embark on a process to create formal net neutrality rules.
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