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Editorial: A pothole on the information superhighway

Jul 15, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The battle over the digital future heated up last week when the American Civil Liberties Union lashed out against the threat of monopoly control of the broadband Internet by the cable industry.
The organization echoed fears that have been voiced in recent months by the Center for Digital Democracy and other consumer watchdog groups. Of particular concern to the ACLU, and it is a legitimate concern, is the potential for impairment of Americans’ First Amendment rights if cable operators gain unregulated control over high-speed access to the Internet.
“This is perhaps the most significant free speech effort of the first part of the 21st century,” Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s technology and liberty program, said last week. “Many people don’t realize that if current policies continue, a handful of big monopolies will gain power over information flowing through the Internet.”
The organization wants the government to step in to protect the free flow of information over the broadband pipe as it has protected dial-up access. With dial-up, common carrier regulations ensure that phone companies make their lines available to all Internet service providers. No such requirements are in place with cable companies’ broadband networks, but simple logic dictates that the protections afforded dial-up should be extended to broadband.
Cable providers, who have steadfastly resisted any effort to regulate broadband access, are less than supportive of the ACLU position. In a brief initial response last week, National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman Marc Smith said, “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.”
The “no evidence” argument is a familiar one, often raised by groups whose position is at odds with public interest. Here again, it is a weak argument. It can be difficult to come up with evidence before the damage is done, particularly in an emerging and rapidly evolving marketplace. Sometimes it’s necessary to resist the call for hard evidence and replace it with common sense.
The cable industry would be wise to acknowledge that ownership of the broadband pipe does not give it the right to control information. The NCTA and other cable groups should take a step back from their hard line and embrace the kinds of reasonable government controls that will make the high-speed Internet work for everyone.
Lawmakers and regulators, meanwhile, should pay serious attention to the concerns raised by the ACLU and the watchdog groups, and should take the necessary regulatory actions sooner, rather than later, to protect the future flow of information.