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Democratic Senators Chide AT&T for Favoring HBO Max Over Rivals

June 4, 2020, 7:47 PM

AT&T Inc. is violating net neutrality principles by allowing its wireless customers to watch content through its HBO Max streaming service without incurring data charges, three Democratic senators said.

AT&T has a “policy of favoring a specific streaming service in a manner that appears to runs contrary to your stated support for a free and open internet,” Democratic Sens. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), said in a letter to CEO Randall Stephenson.

The senators cited a June 2 article by technology news publication The Verge, which reported that AT&T exempts use of HBO Max from counting toward customers’ data caps while usage charges apply for competing services like Netflix and Disney Plus.

The telecom giant defended the arrangement, saying it was similar to those of some competitors.

“Our wireless subscribers can stream HBO Max video without incurring data charges, which will save money for millions of consumers,” the company said in a statement. “This is based on a Sponsored Data arrangement and is a program we offer on the same terms to any entities who wish to sponsor data for their customers.”

AT&T is free to favor its own content after the Federal Communications Commission in 2017 repealed Obama-era rules that required internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally.

Because HBO Max is owned by AT&T, the wireless carrier is paying itself to zero out the data charges, the senators said.

“This practice of allowing one arm of your company to ‘pay’ another arm of your company for preferential treatment attempts to mask its true impact,” the senators said. “The Trump FCC may have gutted critical net neutrality protections, but AT&T nonetheless has a responsibility to avoid any policies or practices that harm consumers and stifle competition.”

The senators requested an explanation from AT&T by June 25.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julia Weng at jweng@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com

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