Advocacy groups say AT&T has gone too far in its lobbying efforts to oppose the Federal Communications Commission's new proposed Net neutrality regulations.
This week AT&T's top lobbyist Jim Cicconi sent a memo to managers urging them to encourage their families and friends "to join the voices telling the FCC not to regulate the Internet."
Over the past few weeks, the battle over Net neutrality has heated up as the FCC is set to start the ball rolling on a process that will make the agency's existing open Internet principles official regulation.
AT&T has been one of the biggest opponents of the new regulation, along with Verizon Communications and cable company Comcast. On the other side of the debate are consumer advocacy groups and large Web-based technology companies, such as Google and Amazon.
The phone companies have rallied support among some congressional leaders, both Democrat and Republican, who have sent letters to the FCC opposing new regulation. And the advocacy groups and big Internet companies have done the same.
But many advocacy groups say that AT&T has crossed the line by suggesting to its employees that they use their personal e-mail addresses to post comments opposing Net neutrality regulation. These groups believe that AT&T is deliberately trying to create the appearance that average citizens oppose the Net neutrality regulations.
"AT&T is practiced in spending money on so-called astroturf groups to give the appearance there is widespread support for their agenda," said Timothy Karr, campaign director for the advocacy group Free Press.
AT&T defended its actions by saying that it is merely rallying support for its cause.
"We were providing important information to our employees," said Michael Balmoris, a company spokesman. "And it was up to them to respond personally. If they use their company e-mail that is fine, too. It was not a mandatory business request."
Balmoris argued that groups such as Free Press and Public Knowledge also mobilize people on the Web. They send e-mails to thousands and provide talking points and even form letters that they can send to congressional leaders or post as comments.
This is true. But Karr argues the main difference is that Free Press and other advocacy organizations do not pay the people who post those comments and send those letters. What's more, their Web campaigns are built around people who have specifically asked for information on the subject and are generally already in support of Free Press' positions.
"Our activists aren't on our payroll," he said. "And they come to us looking for information. When a letter like this is sent to every manager from one of the company's most senior executives, it's hard to imagine AT&T employees thinking the memo was merely a suggestion."
Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge, another advocacy group supporting Net neutrality, also took issue with AT&T's letter to its employees. Brodsky said that not only are the talking points AT&T uses in its memo questionable and debatable at best, but he said that AT&T is subtly threatening employees by describing the FCC as "poised to regulate the Internet in a manner that would drive up consumer prices, and burden companies like ours while exempting companies like Google."
"When you send a letter to employees and say that our business will suffer if you don't do this, it's very misleading especially in this economic environment," he said. "People are afraid of losing their jobs. But the fact of the matter is that AT&T has already laid off 20,000 employees , and it's had nothing to do with Net neutrality."
The FCC is expected to begin the process of creating rules for Net neutrality regulation at its monthly meeting on Thursday. The FCC has extended the period for receiving comments until Thursday.