We’ve noted for a while there’s a weird myopia occurring in internet policy. As in, “big tech” (namely Facebook, Google, and Amazon) get a relentless amount of Congressional and policy wonk attention for their various, and sometimes painfully idiotic behaviors. At the same time, just an adorable smattering of serious policy attention is being given to a wide array of equally problematic but clearly monopolized industries (banking, airlines, insurance, energy), or internet-connected sectors that engage in many of the same (or sometimes worse) behaviors, be they adtech or U.S. telecom.
Case in point: while the entirety of U.S. policy experts, lawmakers, journalists, and academics (justifiably) fixated on the Facebook whistleblower train wreck, a story popped up about AT&T. Basically, it showcased how AT&T not only provided the lion’s share of funding for the propaganda-laden OAN cable TV “news” network, the entire thing was AT&T’s idea in the first place, and simply wouldn’t exist without AT&T’s consistent support:
“They told us they wanted a conservative network,” Herring said during a 2019 deposition seen by Reuters. “They only had one, which was Fox News, and they had seven others on the other [leftwing] side. When they said that, I jumped to it and built one.”
It was previously known that AT&T was one of the few major cable TV distributors to carry OAN, therefore providing 90% of the channel’s revenue (even Comcast long refused to carry the network). That’s not surprising, given how well inflammatory bullshit sells. But it wasn’t previously known how closely linked the two companies were, with OAN claiming AT&T even utilized the network to help put a positive shine on the company’s disastrous, $200 billion, job-killing megamerger spree:
“[AT&T told OAN’s owner AT&T] needed help to allay FCC and other officials’ concern that the DirecTV deal – a consolidation of providers – might make it harder for independent networks to get on the air, Charles Herring said.
So, he said in the affidavit, Slator proposed a new deal: If the Herrings lobbied on AT&T’s behalf, AT&T would air OAN and WealthTV on both U-verse and DirecTV. The Herrings would be paid one-third less per subscriber, but because DirecTV had so many more subscribers, the deal could be worth $100 million over five years…The court filings also cite a promise by OAN to “cast a positive light” on AT&T during newscasts.”
Given the sheer scope of the propaganda being funneled through online platforms, cable TV news channels like OAN are often dismissed as less relevant. But in a nation where elections are often decided by a few hundred votes, a dedicated propaganda network (one at the direct beck and call of Donald Trump) really can make all the difference, media experts say:
“If you have 12 Americans being fed a diet of untruth, that’s 12 too many – and here, it’s literally millions,” Watson said of the OAN audience. “When you have that sort of poisonous influence on mass media, it’s a problem; because elections in the United States tend to be so close, a few percentage points here or there can really make a difference.”
The story saw a tiny fraction of the mind-space usually reserved for modern day issues surrounding “big tech.” While Facebook certainly deserves intense scrutiny for very serious screw ups, there’s an obvious asymmetry in policy and media attention when it comes to “big telecom.” That apathy extends to the Biden government, which rushed to appoint a big tech critic at the FTC in Lina Khan, but still hasn’t been bothered to staff the nation’s two top telecom and media regulators, the NTIA and FCC. This despite the fact COVID has highlighted broadband’s importance, and issues like media consolidation are more important than ever in the face of a struggling news industry and soaring propaganda.
However bad Facebook is (and I 100% agree with complaints that its executives are monumentally terrible), think about this: in just the last few years AT&T has been: fined $18.6 million for helping rip off programs for the hearing impaired; fined $10.4 million for ripping off a program for low-income families; fined $105 million for helping “crammers” by intentionally making such bogus charges more difficult to see on customer bills; fined $60 million for lying to customers about the definition of “unlimited” data; caught in a scandal in which the company paid Trump’s fixer $600,000 for closer access to the President; fined $7.7 million for turning a blind eye to drug dealers running directory assistance scams; caught lying about its claims it stopped funding politicians supporting January 6 insurrectionists; and was accused of ripping off the nations school systems for years by one of its own, former lawyers. I’m sure I missed some.
Now AT&T has been found to be not only the primary backer, but the brain child of an outright propaganda network that’s so extreme, it’s to the far right of Fox News. A network that routinely promotes anti-democratic election conspiracy theories, as well as anti-science COVID hysteria.
The occasional, piddly fine is laughable to a company that enjoys not only a regional broadband monopoly in many parts of the country, but received a $42 billion tax break from the Trump administration for doing absolutely nothing (technically less than nothing, given it has laid off roughly 50,000 employees since the 2017 cut). Tethered to both our domestic surveillance and first responder systems, AT&T is largely immune to serious government accountability because it’s effectively now a patriotic part of government. It shouldn’t be.
Where’s the week long hearing about AT&T getting billions in subsidies and tax breaks in exchange for nothing? Where’s the several-year exclusive media focus on the shoddy state of U.S. telecom and media? Where’s the Congressional hearing about how cable and telecom giants are funding and promoting outright, blatant propaganda? Where’s the endless parade of think pieces and deep dives into these problems? Why has Facebook, and big tech, completely dominated the policy discourse? Why are we seemingly incapable of chewing gum and walking at the same time?
We haven’t seemed to figure out yet that it’s all one, over-arching problem tethered to consolidation, monopolization, antitrust apathy, regulatory dysfunction, and corruption. “Big telecom” is seeing a tiny fraction of the scrutiny of “big tech,” something the telecom sector is actively encouraging. Similarly, countless U.S. industries are filled with sectors dominated by heavily consolidated giants, created by the mindless rubber stamping of terrible mergers. Not a one is seeing equal levels of scrutiny. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be heavily scrutinizing Facebook and technology giants, whose failures are clearly established. I’m just saying that the bizarre asymmetrical policy myopia — where “big tech” is seemingly all that matters — is starting to drive me a little batshit.
Read more: techdirt.com