AT&T holds minorities, poor hostage in California net neutrality battle

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The California assembly’s communications and conveyances committee hasn’t published its analysis of network neutrality legislation yet, but it’s getting plenty of analytical help from AT&T. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has uncovered another bespoke white paper that’s circulating behind closed doors in Sacramento. It’s authored by a hired gun economist and distributed by Cal Innovates, a lobbying front for AT&T, Uber and several small companies and non-profits.

The piece takes aim at the ban on zero rating proposed by senator Scott Wiener (D – San Francisco) in senate bill 822. That’s a technique major Internet service providers use to give content – particularly video, that they own and/or sell – an advantage over their competitors by leveraging their control over the bandwidth their customers buy. If, for example, you watch AT&T’s video via your AT&T mobile connection, it doesn’t count against your monthly data cap. If you watch Netflix, though, it does.

The paper claims that “low income and minority Californians enjoy disproportionately greater benefits from zero-rated data”. Low income Californians tend to rely solely on smartphones for Internet access because, well, they don’t have a lot of money. But zero rating, according to EFF, produces the the exact opposite of what AT&T’s lobbying front claims

Users who depend on their wireless device for Internet access are highly likely to pay overage fees when they try to take advantage of the full, open web. These overage fees are part of a scheme to force wireless Internet users to only use products and services that the wireless ISP has exempted from their own arbitrary data caps—and to punish users when they stray from those products and services. The CTIA’s own study confirms that if they can drive Internet users to their chosen zero rated products to the detriment of potentially superior services.

In other words, any harm is the result of AT&T’s deliberate marketing and network management tactics. They’re telling the legislature: screw us with net neutrality and we’ll screw minorities and the poor.

The communications and conveyances committee is scheduled to consider SB 822, and a weaker net neutrality revival bill, SB 460, carried by senator (and U.S. senate candidate) Kevin de Leon (D – Los Angeles), on Wednesday. The committee has a history of accommodating big telcos and cable companies. We’ll soon know whether history will repeat itself.