In Network Neutrality War, AT&T vs. Google Sounds Like Republicans vs. Democrats
So it's now official: network neutrality is about Republicans versus Democrats. Evidence of the parallel was plentiful leading up to the FCC's recent notice of proposed rulemaking, when many public statements on the subject sounded like partisan rhetoric. But AT&T's September 25 letter to the FCC attacking Google provided the most convincing proof: it amounted to a character assault worthy of a presidential campaign. And a subsequent op-ed piece in the Washington Examiner made clear, if it wasn't already, which sides the high-tech combatants were on.
The giveaway in the AT&T letter was that its first reference to Google called the search giant "noisesome." And from there on, it was not an attack on Google's arguments and positions, but on Google itself – the corporate equivalent of an assault on a political opponent's integrity. The letter started by bringing up two issues – network neutrality and the regulation of phone service – and trying to draw a connection between the two. It then argued that because Google's positions on the two contradicted one another, the Internet company was hypocritical – that is, "bad."
Taking this approach meant AT&T didn't have to prove that Google's positions on either network neutrality or phone service regulation were wrong. In fact, the telecom company agrees with Google on the latter. All it had to do was claim that Google's positions contradicted one another. And that changed the argument completely. No longer was it about whether Google was right or wrong, it was about whether Google was good or bad. And in fact, the entire letter only contained one sentence, on the last page, that directly addressed the merits of network neutrality: "AT&T strongly emphasizes that the existing Internet principles are serving consumers well in their current form and there is no sound reason to radically expand and codify those principles."
The aggressive attack put Google on the defensive. No longer was it promoting its network neutrality arguments, it was defending its corporate character. To counter the attack, it had to prove that there was no legitimate connection between the network neutrality and phone service issues – a classic dilemma of proving a negative. Besides, to a casual observer, such a connection might seem at least plausible, especially given the impressive legalistic language of the AT&T letter. Overall, disproving the attack was a lot harder than arguing for network neutrality.
And if the dust-up didn't make clear enough that network neutrality is as much a political as a technical and commercial issue, the Washington Examiner op-ed left no room for doubt: it claimed that network neutrality is socialism. Since socialism is also one of the accusations that political conservatives are making against the Obama administration, that claim also unambiguously positioned AT&T on the Republican side of the Republican-Democrat divide.
Of course, attacking an opponent's character isn't always the wisest approach, whether for politicians or for companies, particularly when it seems to line one up with a losing side. And since Republicans have fared poorly in the last two biennial elections, anything that binds AT&T to them in the public mind could be damaging to the telecom company. Unfortunately, it may be too late to try to erase that connection. For one thing, Fox News commentator Glenn Beck also subsequently weighed in on network neutrality by calling it a Marxist plot. And Sen. John McCain has just introduced a bill that would prevent the FCC from imposing any network neutrality regulations at all.