Holding AT&T to Account for Blocking FaceTime on iPhones and iPads

September 18, 2012 ,

When AT&T announced that it was going to block FaceTime, Apple’s video chat application, we pointed out that this was a violation of the FCC’s Open Internet rules, and that AT&T’s attempted defenses fell short. We meant it. Today, with our colleagues at Free Press and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, we notified AT&T that, if it doesn’t reverse course, we plan to file a formal complaint with the FCC.

AT&T’s subscribers shouldn’t have to pay AT&T to use applications developed by Apple or any other developer. Subscribers pay for their data connections, and that’s enough. AT&T is trying to engage in exactly the kind of “double-dipping” that the Open Internet rules were mean to prohibit, to get people to buy voice minutes and text plans they don’t need, and to discourage people from using apps it doesn’t approve of.

To be sure, the Open Internet rules are not strong enough. They only protect applications like FaceTime that compete with AT&T’s own video or voice offerings, not all applications. That is not enough–all developers should be free to invent new products and come up with “the next big thing” without worrying that AT&T or any other ISP will demand its cut, or block their application in favor of their own services. But the rules do protect developers, like Apple, who create services that allow people to communicate in real time over the Internet, as FaceTime does. They should be enforced.

The people who buy iPhones and subscribe to AT&T should be protected from AT&T’s capricious actions. They should be able to use FaceTime, or any other app of their choice, to call their friends and loved ones. Apps like FaceTime can be more convenient than traditional calling, and can save users money on overages or international calls. And, as we’ve learned, AT&T’s actions hit the deaf community especially hard, as FaceTime is well-suited to conversations in sign languages. But AT&T would have you believe that because FaceTime is more capable than its voice product, it gets less protection.

In January of 2010, Public Knowledge asked for exactly the enforcement procedures we now plan to use. Before we file, we want to give AT&T every opportunity to correct its mistake and roll back its customer-unfriendly action. But if it doesn’t, we’re going to ask the FCC to enforce its rules.

About John Bergmayer

John Bergmayer is Legal Director at Public Knowledge, specializing in telecommunications, media, internet, and intellectual property issues. He advocates for the public interest before courts and policymakers, and works to make sure that all stakeholders -- including ordinary citizens, artists, and technological innovators -- have a say in shaping emerging digital policies.