Civil liberties group says cable could close Internet

The openness of the Internet is in danger of being compromised by cable companies that offer high-speed broadband services, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the U.S. government must act to protect the Internet's freedom of communication from these monopolies.

As Americans move from dial-up Internet access to logging on via cable broadband networks, they're also moving from the open, regulated telephone network to proprietary cable networks that are controlled by a few large companies, according to an ACLU report issued Wednesday. This means the Internet could come under private control of the cable operators, the report said.

"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, in a prepared statement. "Freedom of speech doesn't mean much if the forums where that speech takes place are not free."

In its report entitled "No Competition: How Monopoly Control of the Broadband Internet Threatens Free Speech," the ACLU calls upon the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to treat cable networks along the same regulatory lines that telephone networks are governed. To date, the FCC has classified cable networks as "information services," meaning they don't fall under the same regulatory framework as telephone networks. Telephone networks are heavily regulated by federal and state governments in order to ensure that citizens can gain nondiscriminatory access to the infrastructure and to prevent the phone companies from wielding control over the information that traverses their networks. Cable systems, however, historically have not been similarly regulated, and many cable companies have been able to control the content -- such as television programming -- that flows across their pipes, the report says.

In the Internet world, cable operators can control the content and services on their networks because they are free to pick and choose which Internet service providers (ISPs) can offer access over their networks. Even those who claim to provide "open access" -- or allowing multiple ISPs to offer service on their networks so that customers have a choice -- often still control the technical components of the service, from the user's cable modem to the network's backbone, the report says.

This means these cable companies could interfere with their customers' online activities, the report says, forcing users to view certain content and violating privacy rights by recording mouse clicks. For example, broadband cable provider Comcast Corp. earlier this year began tracking its users' activity on the Web, but quickly ceased once the practice became public and was met with customer outrage.

"The problem is that the Internet in general has been very open, and to the extent that cable becomes a dominant gateway to the Internet, (cable companies) could limit choice," echoed Scott Cleland, analyst with the Precursor Group, a research firm based in Washington, D.C. "Totally closed access is bad for the market; it's bad for almost everybody involved except for the cable companies."

Although there are other means of high-speed broadband access, such as DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and satellite services, the ACLU is focused on cable networks because that broadband method is used by most residents and small businesses, the report said. The group also believes that operators of other access methods, particularly DSL, are lobbying for deregulation to put them on par with cable operators; therefore, cable companies' practices could be setting precedents.

Instead, the ACLU wants the FCC to force cable operators to act more like telephone operators and provide open access to their networks.

"Without government rules mandating cable Internet open access, there will be no ... competitive restraint on the shrinking number of corporations who are likely to control access to the Internet," the report says. The government "must take regulatory steps to insure that free access to the Internet is protected by competition."

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