ACLU Warns of Threat to Online Free Speech From Cable Monopolies

July 10, 2002 12:00 am

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Technical Report Shows How Cable Operators Can Interfere With Internet Access


WASHINGTON- The American Civil Liberties Union today called on the government to protect the Internet from the power of monopolistic cable providers and issued twin reports examining the technical and policy sides of the issue.

“Many people don’t realize that if current policies continue, a handful of big monopolies will gain power over information flowing through the Internet,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean much if the forums where that speech takes place are not free.”

The first report issued today is a 78-page technical study commissioned by the ACLU and prepared by a Maryland-based telecommunications engineering consulting firm, the Columbia Telecommunications Corporation (CTC). The second report is a brief ACLU policy analysis.

At issue is the ongoing conversion by consumers from a dial-up Internet (based on slow modem connections over phone lines) to far faster “broadband” connections (mostly using cable modems). With dial-up, Internet access is provided over a medium that provides open, equal access to all: the telephone system. But with the shift to cable, Internet access must be adapted to a medium that has been far more subject to centralized control. The danger, the ACLU said, is that the Internet will come under private control.

“The path out of this predicament is clear,” said Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which collaborated in preparation of the reports. “First, the FCC must act to preserve the Internet’s open, common-carrier status in the cable context. Second, citizens and community groups must play an aggressive role in shaping the future of the high-speed Internet, especially ensuring that local networks offer a diversity of broadband content and services.”

The report by CTC includes an in-depth examination of two cable systems (in Portland, OR and Tacoma, WA) and interviews with officials at two Internet Service Providers that have been excluded from many cable broadband systems.

Among the report’s findings and recommendations:

– There are no insurmountable technical barriers to open access on most U.S. cable systems;

– Broadband cable companies should adopt a “public interest architecture” based on principles such as maximizing consumer choice and competition among ISPs;

– The dominant emerging technique for allowing multiple ISPs on cable Internet networks, which CTC calls “rebranding and resale of wholesale services,” actually leaves the cable operator in control of the product. As a result, it creates only the illusion of real competition and consumer choice, and is not true open access.

“Our finding is that there are no technical reasons why the policies backed by the ACLU and other advocates cannot be adopted,” said Dr. Andrew Afflerbach, Vice President of CTC and an author of the report.

The ACLU’s policy analysis explains how the government is failing to extend to the broadband Internet crucial regulatory protections that help keep today’s Internet free and open to all. Unless the government changes course, the ACLU warns, a handful of large corporations will have both the incentive and the ability to interfere with the free flow of information across the network.

“Protecting free expression on the Internet is a high priority for the ACLU,” said Steinhardt. “In the same way that we have battled Internet censorship by the government, we will also fight to make sure that private corporations aren’t allowed to get into a position where they can dictate what we read and say online.”

The ACLU policy analysis and the CTC report are online at /Cyber-Liberties/Cyber-Liberties.cfm?ID=10519&c=16 and /Cyber-Liberties/Cyber-Liberties.cfm?ID=10520&c=16 respectively. The Center for Digital Democracy is online at

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