The recent announcement that (new) AT&T will merge with (medium new) BellSouth doesn’t change the current policy landscape very much. The dinosaurs are huddling ever-closer in the snow, hoping to survive whatever changes are ahead. It’s a smart move on AT&T’s part. Sheer numbers (70 million phone customers, 22 states, $130 billion in sales) may speak to AT&T’s investors in a way that their business plans may not.
On their side of the net policy tennis net, AT&T has the romantic figure of the network builder, the argument that requiring nondiscrimination with respect to internet packets would create “new” regulation, and the fact that regular people don’t seem to care (yet) whether they have unfettered internet access. AT&T can take advantage of the fact that it’s hard to show that whatever they do will interfere with some as-yet-unknown future.
On the other side of the net policy tennis net, we have quasi-religious affirmations of the “end to end” vision of the internet, the argument that the net was made possible by common carrier regulation, the fact that the lives of regular people have been radically changed by the onset of the first network whose software is not inextricably tied to its hardware, and dreams of what might be possible for end-user creations using an open broadband access point.
So far, AT&T is looking pretty strong. It’s much easier to fight against something ("freedom to monetize") being taken away than to fight for something ("the future of a flourishing humanity") that hasn’t happened yet. Plus, AT&T has lobbyists.
But: what the merger does do is help with the innovation arguments. There is no way that AT&T will be able to overcome checklists, check-offs, and layers of concern about any new product. There is almost no chance that they’ll be able to “exploit” the internet in ways that people who don’t have to ask for permission will be able to.
The gene pool at the new AT&T will just be too shallow. There will be hierarchies demanding attention, and it will be impossible for the most creative people around to get past them. Innovation, schminnovation: it won’t be happening at the new AT&T.
So the other side of the net policy tennis net just had one of its arguments get slightly stronger. We still need lobbyists, though.
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