Google blocks calls to Benedictine nuns, doctors and schools, says AT&T

Mobile giant AT&T (T) has taken its ongoing battle with Google over net neutrality to a higher level. Literally. In the latest round of sniping between the two arch-enemies, AT&T has accused Google (GOOG) of using its voice web calling application to block phone calls to, wait for it, Benedictine nuns.

In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission sent Wednesday, AT&T contested Google's claim that the search giant blocks expensive numbers on its voice service that disproportionately are used by phone sex chat-lines. The letter comes after the FCC launched an investigation last Friday into Google's voice blocking.
"Contrary to the public pronouncements of Google and its allies, Google's rural call blocking regime is not limited to Google simply blocking calls to 'adult sex chat line' and 'free' conference calling services to avoid high access charges," AT&T says in the letter. Google also blocks calls to a convent of Benedictine nuns, according to the company.

The letter is the latest salvo in a bitter battle between AT&T and Google over the concept of net neutrality -- the principle that broadband providers should generally treat all legal web content equally. Three weeks ago, new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski outlined a plan designed to keep the internet open and competitive and prevent web-service providers from unfairly discriminating against content that competes with their offerings.

Genachowski hopes to extend the principle of net neutrality to wireless devices, a move that AT&T opposes. As part of its lobbying campaign, AT&T has gone on the offensive against Google -- which supports net neutrality -- by targeting Google Voice, the web-based calling service currently available by invitation only.

AT&T claims that Google is trying to have it both ways by arguing for net neutrality while it blocks expensive calls on Google Voice. Google's response is that most of the calls it blocks are expensive sex-chat numbers which have sprung up like weeds after the deregulation of the telecom industry.

Local phone exchanges charge huge fees to nationwide carriers like AT&T to connect the calls. AT&T tried to avoid connecting the calls two years ago, but the FCC forced them to do so. Now, AT&T is incensed that Google is allowed to block the calls -- and has taken its campaign straight to Genachowski, a former technology executive and Harvard law school chum of President Obama's.

Google, AT&T charges, is blocking calls to a convent of Benedictine nuns, as well as the campaign office of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Google is blocking calls to, among others, an ambulance service, church, bank, law firm, automobile dealer, day spa, orchard, health clinic, tax preparation service, community center, eye doctor, tribal community college, school, residential consumers, a convent of Benedictine nuns and the campaign office of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.," AT&T wrote in the letter.

"Google's call blocking begs an even more important question that the Commission must consider as it evaluates whether to adopt rules regarding Internet openness," the mobile giant continued. "If the Commission is going to be a 'smart cop on the beat preserving a free and open Internet,' then shouldn't its 'beat' necessarily cover the entire Internet neighborhood, including Google?"

"Indeed, if the Commission cannot stop Google from blocking disfavored telephone calls as Google contends, then how could the Commission ever stop Google from also blocking disfavored websites from appearing in the results of its search engine; or prohibit Google from blocking access to applications that compete with its own email, text messaging, cloud computing and other services; or otherwise prevent Google from abusing the gatekeeper control it wields over the internet?"

Google responded by dismissing AT&T's claims.

"Google Voice is a free web application that manages peoples' existing phone services and isn't subject to the regulations that govern traditional phone carriers," a Google spokesperson said. "Our sole intention is to isolate and restrict numbers only associated with traffic pumping schemes like adult chat and free conference call lines which would impact our ability to offer Google Voice for free."

The spokesperson declined to comment on whether Google Voice blocks calls to nuns, doctors or schools.

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