Policy

Quinn: AT&T Is Big Backer of Blackburn Privacy Bill

Top D.C. exec says opt-in is less important than parity 6/23/2017 8:47 AM Eastern

AT&T top D.C. exec Robert Quinn said his company is "very, very" supportive of a bill from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, chair of the House Communications Subcommittee, that would "harmonize" the enforcement of online privacy, both by ISPs and edge providers like Google and Facebook.

Quinn, senior executive vice president, external and legislative affairs, who directs the telco's lobbying efforts, was being interviewed for C-SPAN's Communicators series.

Blackburn has introduced the Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly (BROWSER) Act of 2017, which would designate the Federal Trade Commission as the sole enforcer of online privacy and apply the same privacy regime to ISPs and edge providers, a regime similar to the one the FCC imposed on ISPs before it was nullified.

He said AT&T backed the bill for three main reasons. First, he said, it places everyone under the same rules. He said that Google and Amazon are getting into video distribution and "look a lot like us," so there should be equal treatment.

"All of these companies should operate under the same rules," which was why he said AT&T opposed the FCC's broadband privacy rules, which Blackburn helped nullify using the Congressional Review Act.

Second, he said, was putting all the regulation at the Federal Trade Commission, so it would be the same rules and the same regulator, rather than dividing it up between the FCC and FTC.

Third, he said, the bill preempts state privacy laws, which means companies won't have to face 50 different state regimes around privacy. "There is a rule that everyone has to live with" rather than a "patchwork" of rules.

While some opponents of an opt-in regime for sharing users' personal info with third parties, notably major ad groups, have said they can't support the Blackburn bill because of that uniform opt-in standard, Quinn said AT&T is less concerned about that than about regulatory parity, both in terms of the rules and having one regulator.

Quinn also said AT&T is very supportive of an open internet, a stance he said is routinely mischaracterized by the company's opponents.

He said the company backs rules that "preserve an open internet." He signaled, as have most ISPs, that those rules would generally be no blocking, no throttling andno censorship. As with other ISPs, Quinn did not mention paid prioritization, which is the third of the bright-line rules -- no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization -- adopted by the FCC in 2015.

What AT&T opposes, he said, is putting the rules under Title II, which he called an antiquated statute to regulate telephone rates. He said AT&T was opposed to Title II because the company believes it would ultimately result in "significant rate regulation," which would affect investment, job creation and more.

He said AT&T was hopeful that at the end of the process -- FCC chair Ajit Pai's reconsideration of the Open Internet order, including rolling back Title II classification -- "we'll end up with some basic open internet principles or rules that can be enforced," but that the government would "walk away once and for all" from Title II regulation.

But Quinn said he feared that whatever this FCC does, the pendulum could swing back, which was why it would be better for Congress to step in. He said the only way to ensure enforceable rules is through legislation.

Asked why the Googles and Amazons see the net-neutrality issue differently from AT&T, Quinn said a lot of people don't believe the company is for an open internet even though it was a bigger proponent for the 2010, non-Title II-based, open internet rules than Google was.

Asked about the status of the AT&T-Time Warner merger, he did not have much to update. He signaled the company was still "pretty confident" it would be able to close the deal by the end of the year.

Quinn said conversations about conditions that might be put on the deal were just beginning, given that Congress has not yet confirmed the new head of the antitrust division, though they had been looking for that to happen before the July 4 recess.

The Communicators episode featuring Quinn airs on C-SPAN at 6:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, June 24, and on C-SPAN2 at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. ET on Monday, June 26.

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