SEC: Wireless carriers must allow shareholder votes on data neutrality

February 16, 2012: 3:17 PM ET

AT&T, Sprint Nextel and Verizon must allow shareholders -- like the Beastie Boys' Mike D -- to vote on whether the companies should continue to impose data caps on their customer. 

FORTUNE -- The SEC on Wednesday ordered that Verizon (VZ), AT&T (T), and Sprint Nextel (S) must allow shareholder votes on Net neutrality.

The companies have displayed transparent hypocrisy in arguing against the votes. Net neutrality, they said, isn't a "significant policy consideration" for the companies. Of course, the companies have been fighting hard and spending big to fight Net neutrality, so it's certainly significant to them.

Net neutrality, in fact, is a central organizing principle of the Internet. It means that carriers cannot discriminate among the origins, types, or destinations of the data they handle. This is to prevent them from favoring some Web sites or customers over others - say, by making a deal with Viacom to provide faster streaming service to it than to NBC Universal.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission decreed that Net neutrality principles must apply to wired Internet connections. But it also allowed exceptions for wireless carriers to, for example, put caps on Internet data consumption.

The effort to get shareholder votes is led by Trillium Asset Management. The firm is representing three named AT&T shareholders: Mike D of the Beastie Boys, his wife Tamra Davis (director of the pot comedy "Half Baked"), and John Silva, whose firm Silva Artist Management represents the Foo Fighters, among others. (Corporate opposition to Net neutrality rules might be the most formidable Foo the band has ever fought.)

In a letter to the SEC, an AT&T lawyer wrote that imposing data neutrality rules on the company "would directly interfere with its network management practices and seriously impair its ability to provide wireless broadband service to its customers."

True or not, that sure sounds like a pretty "significant policy consideration."

To be fair, the companies didn't have many other legal avenues to pursue to try to prevent shareholder votes. But then the question becomes, Why try to prevent them at all? What are they afraid of?

To be further fair, the SEC had earlier issued a ruling that Net neutrality was NOT a significant enough issue for shareholder votes. If it wasn't that then, it surely has become so in the meantime.

The companies now might opt to take the SEC's ruling to court.

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