All hail AT&T! Champion of the open internet and users' privacy!

Also a bald-faced liar

When AT&T decided at the last minute it was going to join this week's "day of protest" over net neutrality, the reaction ranged from incredulity to bemusement.

Here was one of the corporate beasts that had actively and aggressively campaigned against the introduction of America's net neutrality rules, claiming to be in support of those self-same rules.

AT&T doesn't support the retention of the rules of course; it is wholeheartedly behind the effort by FCC chair Ajit Pai to get rid of them, despite significant public opposition. So why did it put out a press release and have its SVP of legislative affairs Bob Quinn write a blog post about the decision to join in?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, AT&T is doing the exact same thing in California's state capitol.

As legislators vote on a new bill that would install privacy protections for broadband users, AT&T has been lobbying Sacramento saying there's no point introducing the law since it is already legally obliged to follow FTC privacy rules.

However, at the exact same time, AT&T is arguing in court in San Francisco that the opposite is true – that it is exempt from FTC enforcement. So why would the company write down such claims when they are transparently untrue?

The answer unfortunately says a lot about one of the US' most powerful companies and its culture of cynical sneering.

Condemn-nation

It is the same sneering that has taken root in Congress in recent years and made Washington, DC, a focal point for people's anger and frustration. DC politics has always been a snake pit of double dealing and two-faced declarations, but the cancer has spread to the point that corporations – and politicians – have stopped even pretending otherwise.

The depth of partisan politics has made what used to be the balancer to this kind of contemptuous behavior – public condemnation – worthless. Even as people call others out for egregious activity, the waters are purposefully muddied with snide commentary from the other side. There used to be agreement on what was unacceptable – now there is only opposition to whatever the other lot said.

This disturbing sense that long-held social norms are being abandoned was captured in a discussion this week between late-night TV hosts Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.

Referring to the extraordinary news that Donald Trump Jr had taken a meeting with a Russian government lawyer offering damaging information on his father's presidential rival – and then repeatedly lied about it – Oliver noted: "This is something – as long as we live in a world where something means anything. Do we live in a world devoid of consequences now? This seems like a seismic event – but it might be nothing."

Colbert responded: "I'm used to a world where we're divided on things like abortion, or taxes, or government control of healthcare – polarizing issues," Colbert said. "Have we become a nation where colluding with a hostile foreign power to manipulate our election is a left-right thing?"

"I don't know, but the very fact that you just said that sentence out loud shows that we are turbo-fucked!" Oliver responded.

Transparent

While President Trump's possible collusion with Russia is a wildly different topic to net neutrality and user privacy, the willingness of one of the country's largest corporations to transparently lie about its position and understanding of the law without fear of consequence is a direct result of a new level of hyper-cynicism invading the top levels of American society.

When it comes to net neutrality, companies like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T have long had to walk a policy tightrope. On the one hand, they are huge corporations that make their money from direct connections to millions of ordinary citizens. They have reputations and brands to protect and they all want their customers to see them in a positive light.

But on the other hand, net neutrality poses a significant risk to their market power and their profits. If cable companies are forbidden by law from delving into what passes through their direct connections to people's homes, then they risk becoming simple dumb suppliers of data.

Already more and more people are deciding to simply cut out cable companies' content offerings altogether because it is possible for content producers to send their material directly. No more massive bundles of 100 channels just because there is one you want to watch. No more premium bundles just to get ESPN.

Suddenly the cable companies lose all of their negotiating powers – and with it the vast fees they collect. For their entire lives, cable companies have been built on profiting from their control of content. Net neutrality threatens to undermine all that in one fell swoop.

And so the simple truth is that Big Cable will spend however much money it takes to try to make sure that it can still control content. Because without it, its future lies only in the high-cost, low-margin rollout of fiber.

As we have seen with other heavily disrupted markets such as the newspaper industry and the music industry, the internet can flip a decades-old revenue stream almost overnight. And it takes an enormous amount of energy and effort to re-adjust. Big Cable sees what has happened to other industries and is determined to find a way to stop it. Unlike the music and newspaper industries, however, it has two advantages: physical pipes and politics.

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