AT&T just wants to be loved — but it hasn't really changed

WEB 2.0 SUMMIT — "You're sort of unflappable, aren't you?" says conference organizer John Battelle. He's repeatedly needling AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson about Google, but Stephenson's not rising to the bait. That is, I believe, part of a calculated charm campaign by the monstrously large telecom. "We all want this Internet thing to flourish," he says. Stephenson plays dumb when Battelle asks about "net neutrality," and later, he actually gets applause from the skeptical crowd when he inveighs against government regulation. He means "regulation not written by AT&T's lobbyists." Not a bad performance. But still a performance.

The performance breaks down when Battelle quizzes Stephenson about the company's efforts to compete with cable-TV providers in delivering video to the home. Stephenson complains about local "franchise" regulations about video. Battelle points out that AT&T could simply provide an unregulated, high-speed Internet connection and start its own, separate Internet-video service. It could then compete openly to deliver TV shows and other video down that pipe. Stephenson looks puzzled — and then goes back to his canned talking point that local cable-TV regulations need to go away. He never answers Battelle's question. It's not clear if he even gets it. That's because, at the root, Stephenson is still running the Death Star of yore — the bad old AT&T that craves a monopoly.