By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009; A15
AT&T doesn't like the idea of new regulations mandating unfettered access to the Internet, and recent comments from the Obama administration that connected the issue to censorship in China have really gotten under its skin.
The telecom giant responded forcefully this week to remarks by White House deputy chief technology officer Andrew McLaughlin, who said that free speech and network neutrality are "intrinsically linked." Net neutrality rules are being crafted by federal regulators that would restrict Internet service providers such as AT&T from blocking or prioritizing content on the Web.
In an entry published on the Post Tech Blog and in comments at a telecom policy conference last week, McLaughlin compared censorship in China -- where President Obama's recent comments on open Internet values were blocked from Chinese Web sites -- to the need for net neutrality rules so as to prevent corporations from acting as gatekeepers of information and speech.
"If it bothers you that the China government does it, it should bother you when your cable company does it," McLaughlin said at the policy conference. The administration has made net neutrality a cornerstone of its technology agenda.
Those comments did not sit well with AT&T's chief lobbyist, Jim Cicconi, who issued an angry response. He said it was "ill-considered and inflammatory" to connect censorship in China to the practices of American ISPs, whom he said do not threaten free speech.
"It is deeply disturbing when someone in a position of authority, like Mr. McLaughlin, is so intent on advancing his argument for regulation that he equates the outright censorship decisions of a communist government to the network congestion decisions of an American ISP. There is no valid comparison, and it's frankly an affront to suggest otherwise," Cicconi said.
The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy defended McLaughlin's comments. "A key reason the Internet has been such a success is because it is the most open network in history," the office said in a statement. "Mr. McLaughlin was simply reiterating the Administration's consistent support for the importance of an open Internet -- both at home and abroad."
McLaughlin's comments tracked with remarks he made years ago on net neutrality. Before joining the administration earlier this year, he served as chief of Google's global policy.
Cicconi has been a vocal opponent of net neutrality rules. Last month, he asked AT&T's 300,000 employees to tell the Federal Communications Commission ahead of a critical vote on the issue that the proposed new rules were extreme and could deter future investment in broadband Internet networks.
The agency later unanimously passed a rule-making proposal that could lead to stronger and broader net neutrality rules. Cicconi, former deputy chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, has since met with a top official at the FCC to push for limitations on its net neutrality proposal.
The Computer and Communication Industry Association, a trade group representing some of the biggest companies in the telecom and high-tech industries, criticized Cicconi's comments and agreed with the link McLaughlin made between net neutrality and free speech.
"The juxtaposition of these free speech issues -- Internet censorship and net neutrality -- pulls away the layer of confusion about net neutrality that opponents have hidden behind for years," said Ed Black, chief executive of CCIA. "Unrestricted, the Internet may be mankind's greatest tool ever to promote individual freedom. We ought to do everything we can to protect that possibility -- and if we aren't careful it can become a tool to censor, surveil and manage captive audiences."