Telecom Using Veterans As Props To Demonize California's New Net Neutrality Law
from the scare-mongering-incorporated dept
Efforts by industry and captured regulators to demonize California’s net neutrality law have begun in earnest.
Last week, AT&T lied that it had been forced to stop giving its customers “free data” nationwide because of the new law. Of course, that’s not true. In reality, the law (slightly tougher than the FCC rules AT&T lobbied to kill) prevents AT&T from abusing its bullshit monthly usage caps. Under the law, AT&T can no longer abuse usage caps to give its own streaming services an unfair advantage over competitors like Netflix (which it had been doing for several years), nor can it let deep-pocketed companies buy an unfair advantage on AT&T’s network (something AT&T called “sponsored data”).
Despite the industry’s attempts to frame this so-called “zero rating” as akin to “free data,” that’s not accurate, and numerous experts say blocking such efforts is a good thing for consumers and competitors alike (for many reasons). And it’s not that AT&T was forced to stop offering “free data,” so much as the law stops AT&T from erecting artificial network limits, then exploiting those pointless restrictions to give itself (and deep-pocketed competitors) an unfair advantage in online competition.
Because the broadband industry’s gamesmanship with zero rating is hard for non-technical (or outright dumb) people to understand, it’s easy to confuse folks. Enter FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who this week falsely tried to claim California’s new net neutrality law would soon be “cutting off free health services” from veterans nationwide:
Cutting off free mental health services for veterans is the unconscionable outcome demanded by regressive ?net neutrality? laws.
This is wrong.
Biden?s Veterans Affairs Dept. sounds the alarm on California?s net neutrality law, which goes into effect tomorrow, reports Politico. https://t.co/0LP8Eoi9nf
— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) March 24, 2021
Would you be surprised to learn that absolutely nothing Carr claims here is true? Nobody is pulling video health care from veterans. It will never happen. Nobody’s even “sounding the alarm,” really. The VA is just doing competent due diligence to make sure they’re in compliance with a new law.
Carr was riffing off a story in Politico noting that the VA is simply asking if their existing telehealth services will run afoul of California’s net neutrality restrictions. The VA’s correspondence was leaked by an anonymous party (wink!) Politico wouldn’t reveal:
“POLITICO received a copy of the correspondence on the condition that it not identify the parties involved in the communication.”
Of concern is the VA’s Video Connect App, which provides veterans with access to video health services. The service is technically “zero rated” (doesn’t count against a user’s wireless caps), and while that’s technically against the law, nobody in California is going to come along and sever veteran access to the app. Any claim to the contrary is scare mongering. Everybody involved here will find an easy workaround (more on that later) that makes everybody happy, because nobody wants to harm veterans.
I should note I’ll be pretty surprised if the “most progressive state in the nation” even bothers to enforce the state’s new net neutrality law on any consistent basis when it comes to actual harms. So the idea that California’s going to suddenly start kicking veterans around as one of its first acts under this law (in the process giving ammunition to industry) is fairly laughable. Also: the claim this would occur nationally is just outright false. There’s nothing stopping ISPs from zero rating this service in every state but California, given there’s no federal restrictions on the practice due to relentless telecom industry lobbying.
Way more importantly to note, this is a non-issue with a simple solution. As Stanford Professor Barbara Van Schewick points out in a blog post, usage caps are bullshit constructs in the first place. If you understand that usage caps are pointless cash grabs by industry that serve no real technical purpose, you should also understand that exempting a service from those arbitrary caps is rather meaningless.
You should also understand there’s any number of simple alternatives to help veterans get discounted access to this app that don’t involve mucking about with monthly usage caps, confusing overage fees, or zero rating. Including, but not limited to offering a subsidy off of a veteran’s overall bandwidth bill, or simply not charging so much money in the first place:
“Carriers can also lower the cost of unlimited plans for everyone so people can use the internet in the way that?s best for them. That?s the real solution, not allowing ISPs to pick and choose what apps and what segment of the population gets relief from low data caps.
Congress understands that, which is why it recently passed the Emergency Broadband Benefit that provides $50 a month to households with low incomes so they can do all the things they need to do online.”
The broadband industry and Brendan Carr know this. They know California regulators won’t bring the hammer down on the VA. They also know there’s ample workarounds that can be struck so this will never become an actual problem (from what I hear that’s already underway). But the telecom industry is on the hunt to try and find ways to demonize popular, pro-consumer, pro-competition rules of the road. So “somebody” (read: telecom companies or any one of their policy tendrils) leaked the VA’s questions to Politico, Carr hops on board with a helpful quote designed to mislead, and Politico runs with it. Without providing any context by actual subject experts like Van Schewick who would have quickly explained that this was all an easily-remedied non-issue.
It of course didn’t take long for the bogus claim to pop up at other industry-friendly outlets like Fox, which quickly jumped on board to amplify the false claims further under the pretense it was a “scoop”:
SCOOP via @LJMoynihan — @JoeBiden point man on telecom issues @superwuster jawboning telecom industry to find a work-around to prevent "net neutrality" in California from ending free access to programs including free veteran-related health apps. Discussing now @FoxBusiness
— Charles Gasparino (@CGasparino) March 25, 2021
The Fox story on this whole manufactured controversy is particularly amusing. In part because it provides absolutely no context informing readers that this is a non-issue with a trivial workaround. Nor do the reporters even try to contact actual subject experts. Instead, they just lazily quote former Ajit Pai “advisor” Nathan Leamer (now doing K street PR work for the GOP and industry) as some kind of objective expert. Leamer in turn is allowed to just spread falsehoods about how the Biden DOJ’s decision to drop its dumb lawsuit against California somehow creates “regulatory uncertainty”:
“Last month, the Department of Justice dropped a case against California that prevented the state from implementing net neutrality. The DOJ’s decision to drop the case surprised many telecom insiders.
?This is another example of the regulatory uncertainty for wireless and tech industries as a whole,? Nathan Leamer, vice president at Targeted Victory, a public affairs firm, told FOX Business. ?There was a lot of frustration that Biden?s DOJ dropped the suit in a heel turn.”
This entire quote is nonsense. Biden’s move surprised absolutely nobody, anywhere (and if you were surprised, you’re not a “telecom insider”). And the only people “frustrated” that the DOJ backed away from Trump and Bill Barr’s dumb lawsuit against California (simply for trying to protect broadband consumers) are telecom giants. Also, I’d be curious if A. “Targeted Victory” (also employed by Facebook) has telecom giants as clients, and if B. work for those clients ever involves working with captured regulators and allied media outlets to generate bogus controversies to attack policies and laws the industry doesn’t like.
As the telecom sector and guys like Leamer and Carr were busy pushing this bogus claim at favorable news outlets, other telecom-backed think tanks were busy spreading the same message:
A telehealth app providing sponsored access to low-income and rural area veterans is at risk of being cut off by California's bad net neutrality regulation. This consequence is not pro-consumer or neutral — it's anti-consumer. Our vets deserve better.https://t.co/TAiLFynnH0
— Free State Foundation (@FSFthinktank) March 25, 2021
From there, it wasn’t long before the bullshit claim, pushed heavily again by Carr, pops up in the mouths of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, showcasing how this whole thing was coordinated from the start:
?Liberals are in fierce denial about how net neutrality harms consumers, and there will be more unintended?albeit not unexpected?consequences to come,? writes the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board.https://t.co/yj5TN4n5Qy
— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) March 25, 2021
See how this all works yet? It’s not as hard to manufacture a controversy as you might think. Especially when the US press is eager to help.