AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has now spoken out to say that state-level net neutrality regulations would be and are "a total disaster." The executive's comments came as part of a panel discussion on data privacy during the recent WSJ.D Live Tech conference with other participants including former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and representatives of both major US political parties. To clarify his stance, Mr. Stephenson pointed to the fact that not every state will necessarily put the same regulations or laws in place surrounding either net neutrality or data privacy. The result of that, he concluded, would be at least 50 different sets of rules that a given company would need to understand in order to operate within the US.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ballmer seemed to take a similar stance on the subject but offered up a different reason, stating that legislators simply aren't taking the time to understand the industry. Any regulations, he says, should be at the discretion of the appropriate federal agencies rather than implemented at any legislative level without consideration for the industries in question. The two representatives speaking at the event, both from California, appeared opposed to the idea, with Democrat Ro Khanna outlining why some form of regulation needs to be considered from both a privacy and standpoint. Republican representative Darrell Issa seemed to agree that some form of regulation should be enacted but suggested that it would need to be both limited in scope and require cooperation across the current political divide.
Background: Net neutrality has been in the news with such frequency since its repeal earlier this year that, in truth, it requires very little by way of explanation. In summary, the regulations were intended to protect Internet users from malpractice from service providers, classifying them as utilities and making it against the rules to favor certain content or throttle the flow of traffic. AT&T and other telecoms had initially been supportive of the measures when they were put in place under the Obama administration in 2015. However, in the wake of the repeal and, in some cases, leading up to it, many of those who had supported the regulations turned face to agree with the then-new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's assertion that it was harmful for competition.
Mr. Stephenson's comments in this instance may have been referring to any number of state-level attempts to bring some semblance of net neutrality protections back or the number of ensuing lawsuits demanding similar actions. Having said that, of the many attempts to revive the rules, it seems most likely that the executive is spurred on specifically by recent legislation in California which initially saw the protections passed into law before that was challenged by the FCC. Specifically, the FCC has dubbed the action illegal on the basis of language and conditions used and put in place during the repeal process. Enforcement of that law has since been put on hold while other cases surrounding the repeal play out but it would, in essence, re-enact and re-enforce the rules that had been put in place prior to the repeal. It would also prevent businesses that don't adhere to the law from operating within the state's borders or gaining state contracts.
Impact: Although Mr. Stephenson and Mr. Ballmer's statements on the matter won't likely have an immediate impact on the ongoing circumstances, they do offer up at least two seemingly valid points. To begin with, if states are implementing separate laws pertaining to net neutrality, it will have consequences for the companies that operate across state lines – effectively forcing them to play by different rules from state to state. In some cases, such as California's laws permit, it might halt them from entering or continuing in certain states outright if they don't adhere to those same rules in other regions.
At the same time, any tech companies or others involved in internet-centric businesses do arguably need to be deeply involved in the drawing up of new regulations pertaining to the matter. While some may benefit from the repeal, those who offer services like Netflix or Google that can run in competition with those owned by the major service providers – such as DirecTV – could be stifled by the abovementioned practices. Simultaneously, net neutrality protections have not necessarily been a partisan issue. Most internet users agree with the banning of the practices it was intended to prevent. The commentary, in spite of its noteworthy points, really only serves to highlight the apparent division between the goals of carriers and users, in addition to just how controversial the topic continues to be.