ACLU: Cable Companies Could Control Internet

Fearing a monopoly by cable broadband companies and a resultant loss of freedom of speech, civil liberties groups said they will fight federal measures that would let cable Internet providers retain control of their networks and bar competing Internet service providers (ISPs) from using their lines.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, in reports released Wednesday, argued that the Internet’s success is based on “open networks.” They noted that cable broadband providers, which more users are turning to for high-speed access, “wield total control over Internet use” and are not subject to regulatory or competitive measures.

As a result, the ACLU said, a smaller number of companies control access to the Internet, as well as the content available on the network.

“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,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program.

Regulator Measures Needed

According to the groups, cable companies should be subjected to the same common carrier regulatory measures that apply to phone companies. Those regulations force telephone operators to let their lines be used for transferring voice and data.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently is debating how to classify cable network lines. That decision will affect how or even whether they are regulated.

“No one is saying they can’t make a lot of money at it, but we’re saying they can’t monopolize unfairly your access and discriminate against Web sites online,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, who collaborated on preparating the reports.

Chester told the E-Commerce Times that the groups want cable operators to “have an infrastructure which enables the Internet to thrive in a robust, competitive climate.”

The ACLU noted that its focus on cable broadband providers was spurred by that technology’s widespread adoption by consumers and businesses, compared with slower adoption of competing DSL (digital subscriber line) technology.

Too Little, Too Late?

“Where were they when the related bills passed Congress? Why now?” Lisa Pierce, broadband research analyst at Giga Information Group, said of the newly released reports.

Pierce told the E-Commerce Times that she believes that because of other congressional focus points, the ACLU is unlikely to gain much momentum from its announcements.

However, she noted, it is important for the FCC to take a more holistic approach to regulating its telecommunications infrastructure, rather than dividing up the technologies, “whether it’s landline or wireless, whether it’s fixed or mobile, whether it’s cable, copper or fiber.”

Chester agreed that a single regulation is needed by the FCC. He noted that, ultimately, “the game here is that both the phone and cable guys really want to end up monopolizing as much Internet traffic as they can.”

Cable Company LANs

In addition to government regulation of cable companies — or lack thereof — the ACLU also took issue with how customers access the Internet when logged on via a cable provider.

According to the ACLU, cable operators make the Internet available to consumers via a LAN (local area network). As a result, they theoretically can control the speed at which Web sites download. And they can even block certain Web sites.

Network operators also can monitor customer usage and can control the content users see by forcing customers to log in on a central home page.

But Pierce was adamant that the configuration varies little from other ISPs — dial-up, cable or DSL. “The filtering happens at the level of the ISP,” she said.

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