AT&T urges Congress to rewrite net neutrality rules

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – AT&T Inc urged U.S. Congress on Wednesday to write new laws to govern the internet, seeing that as preferable to future regulatory involvement after the Trump administration voted to rescind so-called net neutrality rules late last year.

The repeal lifted restrictions that kept telecom companies like AT&T, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc from slowing or blocking access to certain content.

But a future FCC could reimpose such rules, and AT&T and others want Congress to step in and write a permanent solution for a more than decade-long dispute that would likely provide fewer consumer protections.

Congress should “end the debate once and for all, by writing new laws that govern the internet and protect consumers,” AT&T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson said in full-page newspaper advertisements, reiterating a position the company has held since 2010.

While Congress doing so would limit internet providers’ freedom, it would also limit a future FCC’s ability to regulate the internet, a prospect service providers fear in part because they believe it could lead to rate regulations.

The Republican-majority U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted in December along party lines to reverse the Obama administration’s landmark 2015 rules barring internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic or offering paid fast lanes, also known as paid prioritization.

Stephenson said AT&T plans “to work with Congress, other internet companies and consumer groups in the coming months to push for an ‘Internet Bill of Rights’ that permanently protects the open internet for all users.”

AT&T wants the rules to apply to all internet-related companies, including social media and content providers like Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc and Inc, which do not support Congress writing rules governing their conduct.

The Internet Association, which represents companies like Facebook and Google, said in a statement it “is impossible to believe that AT&T is serious when they have such a long track record opposing consumer protections like net neutrality.”

A public backlash to the repeal, especially among younger people, has raised concerns among some politicians about how the issue might play out in the 2018 congressional elections.

Republican Senator John Thune, who chairs the Commerce Committee, said he has offered to codify some of the consumer protections net neutrality advocates want, “as long as the regulation is sensible,” but said it will be hard to get a compromise with Democrats reluctant to come to the table.

A planned Senate vote on whether to let the FCC repeal stand “gets you nowhere,” Thune said, calling it a “shiny object.” Even if it passes the Senate, it will not pass the House, “and the president is not going to sign it.”

Editing by Chris Sanders and Meredith Mazzilli