ACLU airs fears about Net access

Jul 15, 2002  •  Post A Comment

In a boost to watchdog groups, the American Civil Liberties Union last week announced that it has joined the effort to force cable operators to open their broadband access to rival Internet access providers.
“This is perhaps the most significant free speech effort of the first part of the 21st century,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s technology and liberty program.
Cable operators have long made clear that they would prefer to control access to their high-speed data networks.
But watchdog groups are concerned that control will be used to quash cable’s Internet access rivals-and even limit the access of their subscribers to information.
The watchdog groups want the Federal Communications Commission to require cable companies to open their networks to all Internet access service providers, under the same sort of common carrier obligations that phone companies face.
Cable operators say they will fight efforts to open broadband access.
“The ACLU offers no evidence whatsoever to show that the provision by cable operators of high-speed access to the Internet is somehow stifling development of or access to any content on the Internet,” said Marc Smith, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
“All of the Internet’s content is a simple mouse click away for cable modem users.”
Despite the NCTA’s assurances, the ACLU released a white paper last week that contends that unregulated cable operators have the power to block access to such applications on their networks as video conferencing and Internet telephony.
In addition, according to the ACLU, cable operators can use their network control to impede access to independent Web sites and “force-feed” content to subscribers by requiring them to access the Internet through the cable company’s home page.
“Finally, a cable provider’s absolute control over its network gives it the technical capacity to record everything its customers do online, down to the smallest mouse click,” the ACLU white paper said.
Added the ACLU’s Mr. Steinhardt, “Monopoly control over access to the Internet is inevitably going to lead to restrictions on both speakers and listeners.”
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said representatives of ACLU and CDC are planning to launch an outreach effort to encourage local consumer groups to join the initiative later this month, with visits planned to Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.
The trip’s purpose is “to help organize local consumer revolt against closed cable networks,” Mr. Chester said.
“We’re bringing in a powerful new ally that we hope will change the political gravity in the debate,” he added.
The FCC is currently considering the access issue in a rulemaking proceeding. “We are considering the issues and welcome all points of view,” said David Fiske, an FCC spokesman.