ACLU Joins Battle Over High-Speed Access to Internet

February 23, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today said that it has joined the battle over high-speed access to the Internet and promised to work to ensure that cable providers like AT&T and America Online-Time Warner open their high-speed Internet services to the broadest possible array of service providers.

“The ACLU has led the fight against government censorship of the Internet,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU. “Now the very architecture of the Internet is changing in ways in which corporate censorship may prove to be even more dangerous.”

Speaking today alongside consumer watchdogs and media advocates at a forum at the National Press Club, Steinhardt said the question of “open access” to high-speed cable Internet service is crucial to maintaining the Internet as a free and open forum. He noted that the issue had become controversial across the nation as a wave of corporate mergers has created a few dominant cable providers that are just now spelling out their plans for offering Internet service.

“High-speed access is the future of the Internet,” said Marvin Johnson, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “But it will be a very different Internet if the few companies who control cable systems also control the service providers who decide what content we receive.”

AT&T – which through recent acquisitions is expected to become the largest cable company in the country with 70 percent of the cable market – has already entered into deals in which it gives favorable treatment to some content providers and limits access to video. Any broadband provider could similarly “filter” out any form of content it finds objectionable.

Until recently, Steinhardt said, most people gained access to the Internet at home through a telephone “dial up” connection to a wide variety of Internet service providers. In the last two years, however, companies have started to offer “broadband” high-speed Internet access, which makes viewing content such as video and audio more feasible. Users can now obtain high-speed access to the Internet through two methods: Digital Subscriber Lines (or DSL), which run over existing telephone lines, or through the wires that now deliver cable. DSL service, however, is proving more difficult to deploy than cable, which is dominating the residential market.

And while phone companies, who have historically been recognized as common carriers are required to follow the principle of open access – any Internet service provider can, for a fee, offer its services through a DSL line – cable companies are increasingly entering into negotiations with one or two Internet service providers that could easily filter or otherwise block certain types of content and speech.

The ACLU noted that cable companies operate under franchises awarded by local governments, which give them a monopoly in their service areas. As a result of ATT’s recent acquisitions and the Time Warner-AOL merger, dozens of these local cable franchises need to be transferred to new owners.

“When it comes to the provision of Internet access, there is no real difference between high speed access offered by cable or telephone companies,” Steinhardt said. “The cable monopolies should be required to open their systems to any Internet service provider and the ACLU plans to be actively involved at the local, as well as the national level, to fight for the principle of open access.”

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