Regulation is often portrayed as the use of government authority to alter market outcomes away from the interests of firms and toward those of consumers and employees. In turn, the “story” associated with deregulation is the opposite: Corporations and the powerful use their influence to eliminate public sector controls on their conduct at the expense of consumers and employees.
But if the usual narrative is true how do we explain a full-page ad that AT&T recently published in multiple newspapers, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, calling on Congress to pass new legislation to guarantee internet neutrality? The short answer is that existing companies often favor regulation that reduces competition in ways not well understood by consumers or legislators.
AT&T, one of the nation’s largest ISPs and a company that recently dedicated significant resources to support the FCC’s recent repeal of Title II net neutrality regulations, seems like an unlikely proponent of net neutrality legislation. But its position on the policy highlights why companies sometimes support regulations that would appear to harm them.
AT&T’s opposition to Title II net neutrality regulations is not based on a general hostility towards all regulations, but instead stems from the specific types of rules that Title II regulations would impose. Title II of the Federal Communications act of 1934 was originally intended to regulate telephone companies, and gave the government the ability to review and accept or reject telephone rates. During the fight for net neutrality regulation over the last ten years, the FCC sought to regulate the internet under other parts of the Communications Act, but courts continually said no, forcing the Commission to regulate under Title II. Because Title II comes with the possibility of price controls like those imposed on telephone companies, AT&T opposed that regulatory system and called for Congressional action to ensure net neutrality without the possibility of price controls.
As I’ve previously argued, net neutrality regulations are an attempt to settle fights between ISPs and content providers, like Netflix or Hulu. Both sides “need each other to satisfy consumers, but they fight each other to capture the larger share of consumers’ payments.” Title II price controls would have disadvantaged ISPs and benefitted content providers. Now that the debate over whether ISPs should be regulated under Title II is, at least temporarily, seemingly in its favor, why is AT&T continuing to call for new legislation?