AT&T attempts to fly the flag of consumer protection

In an open letter to the world, AT&T has penned its frustrations on the complications of managing the internet and, todays debate, net neutrality.

Jamie Davies

January 24, 2018

4 Min Read
AT&T attempts to fly the flag of consumer protection

In an open letter to the world, AT&T has penned its frustrations on the complications of managing the internet and, todays debate, net neutrality.

This is probably nothing more than an attempt to score PR points, as AT&T will presumably be secretly happy with FCC plans to remove net neutrality rules. It has promised not to throttle traffic, but has said nothing about promoting traffic above others. It is a nuance, but it is an important point to note. Your experience of one website would be better than another, but it is a positive action not a negative one to achieve the same result. Some would argue this also violates net neutrality rules.

But that is beside the point which we want to address.

“Regulators have reversed their predecessors,” CEO Randall Stephenson wrote on the company blog.

“And because the internet is so critical to everyone, it’s understandably confusing and a bit concerning when you hear the rules have recently changed, yet again. It is time for Congress to end the debate once and for all, by writing new laws that govern the internet and protect consumers.”

And he isn’t wrong. He might be concerned about the see-sawing of net neutrality regulations, but has inadvertently stumbled across a bigger issue.

Since the introduction of the internet, regulators have been trying to catch up. Technology has always moved faster than the boresome bureaucrats can update the rules. The only problem is that the old rules don’t work for the new world.

Whether it is police forces or intelligence agencies jurisdiction when seizing information, working conditions for employees, business models to take advantage of the data economy or the opt-in/opt-out conundrum, the rules are not fit for service any more. These same rules are also slow, burdensome and tiresome. They are not suitable.

And these aren’t just rules which are from the pre-internet analogue era, think about the changes which have happened over the last 10 years. Back in 2006, the following things did not exist (thanks to @WesHellyar for the list), the iPhone, iPad, 4G/LTE, Uber, Airbnb, Android, Spotify, Blockchain, Instagram, Kindle, Snapchat, WhatsApp and the App Store. These are all new developments, and only a snippet of what has changed, which need new rules to make sure everything is above board and ethical.

The issue a lot of government around the world are facing are adapting analogue rules to the digital economy. It’s creating a mish-mash of complications which, unless you have an army of legal experts in house, can make the scaling up of a business immensely complicated or, in some cases, impossible.

Every time a correction is made, another problem is uncovered. When that one is fixed, another two complications seem to pop up. Adapted rules is arduous and time consuming, sometimes the best course of action is to simply start again.

This is an idea which will probably face a lot of criticism if it was brought up to the right people in the right public offices because it sounds like a lot of work. But sometimes you just have to rip up the rule book and start again. When you refurbish the dining room because it looks like it belongs in a 70s Argos catalogue, you rip down the wallpaper, tear up the carpet and chuck the hideous chairs into the bin. You start fresh and create something new and appropriate for the time.

It might make two years to rewrite the rules, but that is better than adapting a set of rules over the course of 12 months, before having to adjust several times over the next five. Adapting rules is like continuing to build a Jenga tower. At some point, you will have to play around with one of the blocks at the bottom of the pile. Taking this out destabilises everything above. Make too many changes and the whole tower starts to wobble.

Adjusting the rules is a short-term solution, with a medium-term benefit. Longer-term thinking and vision is needed. The current regulatory environment is not suitable for the digital economy, and while AT&T might have ulterior motives for this example of preaching, calling for new rules is a valid exercise.

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