ACLU Calls Broadband Regs First Amendment Issue

WASHINGTON — Claiming cable high-speed Internet systems are being built to “block content,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) today launched a campaign to redefine the issues involving the deployment of broadband as the “key First Amendment issue of the 21st Century.”

Teaming with the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), the ACLU issued a study, a white paper and a verbal broadside to the cable industry in a mid-morning press conference.

ACLU Associate Director Barry Steinhardt said his group decided to focus on the cable broadband business since it is the dominant provider of high-speed Internet access to residential and small business customers and, unlike telephone companies, it is not required to share lines with independent service providers (ISPs). The ACLU wants the rules changed to force cable companies to provide their broadband consumers with multiple ISP choices.

Steinhardt said his group was prepared to pursue the matter of open access on cable systems on the regulatory level, in Congress and in the courts. Steinhardt, Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the CDD and Dr. Mark Cooper, research director of the CFA, were scheduled to meet with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell Wednesday afternoon to present the ACLU study, Technological Analysis of Open Access and Cable Television Systems.

“The danger is the Internet will come under private control. Core American liberties such as freedom of speech are of no value if the forums where such rights are commonly exercised are not themselves free,” the ACLU white paper states. “That is why the ACLU has a keen interest in the continued openness and vitality of the Internet as a medium of free expression.”

According to Steinhardt, the Internet was able to exponentially grow as a dial-up service over the last decade because there has been no centralized control over how the network is used, and the Internet serves as a neutral, nondiscriminatory pipe that automatically carries data from origin to destination “without prejudice or interference.” For most of the last decade that pipeline was the telephone system that, by law, is required to provide multiple ISPs access to that system.

The rise of broadband — and the subsequent popular notion by Washington politicians that the widespread deployment of broadband will serve as an economic panacea — has sparked a series of proposed laws and regulations that would put primary control of that pipeline in the hands of regional telephone companies and cable giants.

An FCC ruling set forth in February, many say, which labeled ISPs an “information service with a telecommunications component,” opened the door to new line-sharing and cable competition rulings later in the year.

As a result, many local and regional digital subscriber line (DSL) providers are going out of business, while cable is exempted from even opening its network up to the competition.

The ACLU report says, “a company providing Internet access over a cable system has many opportunities for interfering with online activities, often in ways that are invisible to their customers. In fact, much like the administrator of an office LAN, they have the potential for an all-seeing, all-controlling power over the activities of customers on their networks. Cable providers are under no obligation to remain a neutral pipe for content over an end-to-end — and have many incentives for interfering with that pipe.”

The report also claims cable companies have the power to control the fundamentals of a customer’s Internet connections, including dictating the number of computers that a customer connects to the cable modem through a home network; can block their customers from using particular applications, such as video conferencing, Internet telephony and virtual private networks; and can control content by slowing or blocking access to certain sites on the Internet, such as those without financial arrangements with the cable company’s ISP.

“In short, cable broadband providers have both the financial incentive and the technological capability to interfere with the Internet as a free and neutral medium for the exchange of information,” the report states.

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