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How AT&T chewed up, and spat out Net Neutrality

Masterpiece of misdirection

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Step Three: "There is no Keyser Sose"

When the FCC's approval of the BellSouth Merger was published, it contained several pages of "voluntary, enforceable commitments by AT&T".

Among these was a promise not to do something AT&T never intended to do, specifically "degrade or prioritize any packet transmitted... from the customer ... up to and including the Exchange Point closest to the customer's premises."

For good measure, the following line ensured it would never interfere with Whitacre's IPTV service.

And as befits a virtual reality campaign in which the pro-camp couldn't define what they were fighting for - after the FCC decision, campaigners couldn't decide if they'd won or not. Save The Internet.com proclaimed victory - while many leading Net Neutrality campaigners commiserated each other in defeat. In their Opinions, even the two FCC commissioners who backed Neutrality, Copps and Adelstein, couldn't agree. Adelstein sounded jubilant, while Copps sounded like he was going to hit Mo's Bar for a consoling drinking session.

Net Neutrality was Keyser Sose, the phantom figure in the fictional fraud brilliantly executed by Kevin Spacey and Peter Postlethwaite in the movie The Usual Suspects. He didn't need to exist, but he was a fundamental part of the misdirection and manipulation.

For the propagation of the Sose Legend, Whitacre also had the internet to help. It served AT&T's mission in two ways.

Once they'd heard of Keyser Sose's powers, the bush telegraph of bloggers and grassroots activists talked of little else. Threats both possible and impossible were imagined. Sose's omnipotence was enough to blind them to technical practicalities which would have undermined the myth, and blind them to the bigger picture, a corporate merger that even the proponents had thought was impossible.

In turn, journalists, who looked to the "grassroots" as an authentic source, also bought into the myth. One reputable English newspaper digested the BellSouth decision by setting the scene, for newcomers, like this:

American telecoms companies ... dropped dark hints that high-bandwidth sites such as YouTube ought to pay them for the extra data load they imposed on their networks.

Whitacre had never said it, in fact he'd explicitly ruled it out - but Keyser Sose may well have said it.

When you see that a Google search for "Net Neutrality" reveals little but myth-making, that's understandable. Hundreds of blogs and campaign sites echo the terrible threats Keyser Sose has made, and the unimaginable destruction he might visit up on us. (The newspaper cited above referred to the "AT&T/SBC" merger throughout. That's the last merger but one, suggesting haste was a factor).

Journalists who rely on Google as a primary information resource are rarely aware they're buying consensus reality. It's a ready-made opinion factory, that seems well, real enough. It tells you what the facts are - and it tells you what to think.

On their part, many of the "netroots" activists who clamored for this meaningless "concession" can barely begin to comprehend the extent of the misdirection. For them, Keyser Sose really exists. He has to.

What impresses your reporter the most about the execution of this merger is that in the very Business Week interview where Whitacre said it was impossible, he set the wheels in motion for its success. This tiny, overlooked little detail gives the story a cinematic quality of its own. Whitacre the Movie, anyone?

For a year, almost every telecommunications activist and political opponent in the United States was looking the wrong way. While corporate America used the internet to showcase an effortless demonstration of its power.

That's Southern charm.

AT&T must wish every year was Net Neutrality year. If the Democrats oblige, it probably will be. ®

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