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AT&T wants Congress to draft a net neutrality law. Here’s why that’s a big deal.

Randall Stephenson is chief executive of AT&T. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

AT&T is calling on Congress for a national net neutrality law that would govern Internet providers and tech companies alike, which the telecom giant says would end a fractious, years-long debate over the future of the Web.

In a series of full-page ads Wednesday in major newspapers such as The Washington Post and the New York Times, AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson proposed an “Internet Bill of Rights” that could help guarantee an open Internet, one in which online content is not blocked or slowed down by telecom or cable companies, nor by Internet companies such as Google or Facebook.

AT&T's legislative campaign aims to head off what many analysts say could be another swing of the regulatory pendulum against broadband providers. In December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal its net neutrality rules — a move that largely benefited AT&T and other broadband companies. But that decision is being challenged in court and in Congress. Many states are also moving to pass their own net neutrality rules to replace the federal regulations. On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) signed an executive order requiring that state agencies purchase Internet access only from broadband providers that abide by net neutrality.

More than 20 states are suing the FCC over its net neutrality decision

The prospect of having to comply with perhaps dozens of state-level net neutrality rules is a nightmare for Internet providers. Although the FCC has said it will take states to court if they seek to circumvent its decision, companies such as AT&T want a guarantee of stability.

“Congressional action is needed to establish an ‘Internet Bill of Rights’ that applies to all internet companies and guarantees neutrality, transparency, openness, non-discrimination and privacy protection for all internet users,” Stephenson wrote in the ad.

In the latest news of the net neutrality fight, the Senate approved a resolution that will attempt to reverse the FCC's act of deregulating the Internet. (Video: Jhaan Elker, Brian Fung/The Washington Post)

Stephenson said his company already supports net neutrality in principle, despite AT&T's strong opposition to the Obama-era net neutrality rules that were put in place in 2015. “We don’t block websites,” Stephenson wrote. “We don’t censor online content. And we don’t throttle, discriminate or degrade network performance based on content. Period.”

The Senate is expected to vote this year on legislation aimed at overruling the FCC's repeal. Backed by all 49 Democratic senators and one Republican — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — the Senate resolution would prevent the FCC vote from taking effect. It faces long odds, analysts say, because it is unlikely to make it past the Republican-led House or President Trump's desk.

AT&T's proposal takes a different legislative path. Lawmakers have periodically considered a national net neutrality law, but so far Democrats and Republicans have failed to produce a meaningful compromise. Wednesday's ad could lend momentum to that effort. But it could be tough to overcome election-year dynamics and a polarized political environment, Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly told reporters Monday.

“Given the election cycle, it's probably a heavy lift,” O'Rielly said of a net neutrality compromise bill. “But we have an enormous capacity and incredible leaders in the House and Senate. And . . . if this is something they can make happen, they will.”

While AT&T said the federal law should prevent the blocking and throttling of Web content, it said little about whether providers should be allowed to speed up certain websites and services, particularly in exchange for payments from tech companies. Industry critics say that allowing so-called paid prioritization is tantamount to creating Internet fast lanes for large and wealthy businesses that pay for faster delivery to consumers' screens, potentially shutting out start-ups and small businesses.

Supporters argue that paid prioritization could create new business models that benefit consumers and could help new applications to flourish. An AT&T spokesman said paid prioritization could help facilitate services that consumers may want, such as telemedicine, self-driving cars and the Internet of Things.

AT&T's call for the bill to apply equally to Internet companies and providers reflects a turning point for the long-running net neutrality saga as well as for Silicon Valley's fortunes in Washington. Silicon Valley is facing a wider reckoning as policymakers have dragged companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to testify before Congress about their roles in the 2016 election, in spreading fake news and misinformation, and in tackling online harassment and extremism.

But the proposal to regulate Silicon Valley distracts from the telecom and cable industry's efforts to weaken key consumer protections, said one tech industry official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak more freely.

“This is like the big, bad wolf promising better building codes after blowing down all the houses in town,” the official said.

Others argued that policymakers have overlooked the tech industry's dominance for far too long.

“Those in Congress who continue to insist on strict regulation of ISPs . . . are ignoring serious consumer concerns about privacy and the growing monopoly power of tech giants in Silicon Valley to control online content,” said Fred Campbell, the director of Tech Knowledge, a market-oriented think tank.

Policy experts who developed the concept of net neutrality did not envision applying it to tech companies. In a 2003 paper, the legal scholar Tim Wu said that tech companies could be the victims in a world without net neutrality because Internet providers have a motive to steer customers away from some apps and services and toward others that may share a commercial relationship with the providers.

The result, said Wu, could be a much different Internet than one where apps and services can compete freely. “The problem,” he wrote, "[is] the use of methods, like bans on certain forms of applications, which are likely to distort the market and the future of application development.”

While tech giants do deserve extra scrutiny, given their influence on society, Internet providers have long sought to turn websites into a source of revenue, said Harold Feld, senior vice president at the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge.

“The sad fact is that AT&T and other companies have used the 'but what about Google?' argument as a distraction since the net neutrality debate was 5 minutes old,” Feld said. “Ever since we started having this debate, we have had AT&T trying to frame this as being about the evil, freeloading Google [versus] the poor, put-upon ISPs.”