Net Profits

The devilish details of AT&T's merger deal, the FCC, and net neutrality


| December 14, 2006


The issue of network neutrality, or protecting the web from an all-roads-lead-to-McDonalds.com landscape, often seems overwhelming and difficult to pin down. But the idea of keeping all websites equally accessible is preserved -- or degraded -- in seemingly routine government dealings. In just such a case, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is fielding a recent proposal to merge AT&T and BellSouth. The deal would create the largest telecom company in the world and, because of a lack of permanent regulations, would likely pave the way to dismantling net neutrality, reports John Nichols in his Nation blog, the Online Beat.

The FCC is supposed to be what Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey (D) calls an 'independent, impartial regulatory agency,' writes Nichols. But with the vote on the AT&T-BellSouth merger split 2 to 2, and the tiebreaking commissioner Robert McDowell having recused himself because of a conflict of interest, FCC chair (and former telecom lobbyist) Kevin Martin hatched a suspect plan to break the tie -- and ensure the merger's approval. Martin asked the FCC general counsel to allow McDowell to 'unrecuse' himself, betting that McDowell (another Republican with roots in the telecommunications industry) would vote to approve the merger. Martin's request was granted, reports Ron Orol for The Deal, though McDowell did not say whether he would accept it and actually vote. (McDowell's conflict of interest dates back to when he argued against the merger, not for the principles of net neutrality, but on behalf of competing telecom companies' interests.)

Those casting a positive eye on the merger argue that if the FCC approves the deal at its Dec. 20 meeting, there will still be some net neutrality safeguards. Writing for Forbes, Tim Doyle notes that AT&T has agreed to keep the net neutral -- meaning it won't charge websites premiums for faster service -- for 2 1/2 years if the merger goes through. (Those holding out against the deal are simply pushing for 4 years of net neutrality in the agreement.) What's more, Doyle argues, 'even if AT&T gets its way at the FCC, Congress could still mandate net neutrality... if that's what they and the public really want.'

Of course, the public may have thoughts on the merger that they'd like to share with their representatives before the deal goes through. To that end, the media advocacy group Free Press has set up an interactive website for its 'Stop the AT&T giveaway' campaign. The effort's director Timothy Karr, writing for Monthly Review,  invites people to use the site to alert representatives to both Martin's 'abuse of power' and the issue of net neutrality in general.

Go there >> FCC Chair Schemes to Undermine Net Neutrality

Go there too >> Recused FCC Commissioner OK'd to Vote on AT&T-BellSouth Merger, Could Break Stalemate