AT&T accused of 'astroturfing' on net neutrality

A letter from an AT&T executive urges employees to contact the FCC

An AT&T executive has asked employees to post opposition to net neutrality rules being considered by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on an FCC Web site using their personal e-mail addresses, prompting accusations of unfair advocacy by an opposing group.

The AT&T letter, sent this week by Jim Cicconi, senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, asks employees to go to OpenInternet.gov and use a personal e-mail address to join the discussion forum there.

The letter then gives five talking points that AT&T employees can use to argue against net neutrality in the days leading up to Thursday's FCC meeting, in which the agency is expected to take the first steps toward developing formal net neutrality rules.

The letter is a "kind of astroturfing," the act of creating fake grassroots opposition to an issue, said Tim Karr, campaign director for Free Press, a media reform advocacy group and net neutrality supporter.

"Coming from one of the company’s most senior executives, it’s hard to imagine AT&T employees thinking the memo was merely a suggestion," Karr said in a blog post.

The letter is asking AT&T workers to be "sort of deceptive," Karr added in an interview. "He's asking them to regurgitate talking points that are at best debatable."

In particular, Karr pointed to a sentence in the memo saying that net neutrality rules would "halt private investment in broadband infrastructure." AT&T, as part of its conditions for merger with BellSouth in late 2006, had to live with net neutrality rules for two years, and it continued to invest in broadband infrastructure, Karr said.

An AT&T spokesman dismissed Free Press' complaints, saying the organization and other net neutrality supporters carry on similar campaigns. Free Press often asks its members to write letters of support or opposition on political issues, and in 2006, eBay e-mailed its members asking them to contact their congressional representatives and voice support for net neutrality rules, noted Michael Balmoris, an AT&T spokesman.

There's "no difference" between those efforts and the AT&T letter, Balmoris added. "This was not a mandatory business request," he said. "We were providing important information to our employees, and it was up to them to respond personally. If they use their company e-mail that is fine, too."

Karr disagreed, saying Free Press' campaigns come from voluntary members of the group. "One, we don't ask them to hide who they are, and two, they're not on our payroll," he said.

Despite the AT&T letter, many of the comments on OpenInternet.gov seem to support net neutrality rules.

In other net neutrality news, five pioneers involved in creating the Internet have joined the chorus expressing opinions on the issue to the FCC.

The letter is signed by Vint Cerf, Stephen Crocker, David Reed, Lauren Weinstein and Daniel Lynch, all of whom were involved in development of early Internet technologies, including ARPANET and TCP/IP.

“As individuals who have worked on the Internet and its predecessors continuously beginning in the late 1960s, we are very concerned that access to the Internet be both open and robust," the letter said. "We believe that the existing Internet access landscape in the U.S. provides inadequate choices to discipline the market through facilities-based competition alone. Your network neutrality proposals will help protect U.S. Internet users' choices for and freedom to access all available Internet services, worldwide, while still providing for responsible network operation and management practices."

In recent days, 90 U.S. lawmakers, several minority groups and telecom-related companies including Cisco Systems and Nokia have expressed concern about new net neutrality regulations.

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