ACLU says municipal broadband is the answer to saving net neutrality

Community broadband is "an excellent way" to protect communities' rights to internet access, the ACLU says. (Image: Getty/cosinart)

If cities and towns want to preserve current net neutrality rules, the ACLU says they should build their own broadband networks to serve their citizens.

In its new report released late last week, ACLU emphasized that broadband should be treated by a public utility, adding that the FCC and Republican lawmakers’ efforts to rapidly change the 2015 order is not only a threat to online speech and internet competition, but could restrict how businesses and consumers exchange information over the public internet.

“Internet service has become as essential as utilities like water and electricity, and local governments should treat it that way,” said Jay Stanley, the report’s principal author and a senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “Net neutrality and privacy protections are essential for the open internet that has transformed our society. With the Trump administration and for-profit companies abandoning those values, what we’re seeing around the country is that local governments can protect them and provide access for all.”

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The ACLU’s report comes as hundreds of cities, towns, and counties around the country have already created their own public broadband networks, offering higher speed broadband often at a fraction of the cost of traditional ISPs.

ACLU sent the report to more than 100 mayors and other top local officials around the country who have previously sent joint letters to the FCC and Congress strongly opposing plans to get rid of net neutrality protections. Recipients of the report include the mayors of the nation’s five largest cities as well as many midsized and smaller cities and towns.

“If local leaders want to protect their constituents’ rights and expand quality internet access, then community broadband is an excellent way to do that,” Stanley said.

In its report, the ACLU also provides recommendations for policies it said should accompany public internet systems so they are consistent with privacy, net neutrality, and free speech principles. The guidelines include enacting strict anti-censorship rules and establishing clear oversight processes.

Additionally, the report outlines ways for municipal systems to serve all residents equally, regardless of neighborhoods’ income or racial status. The ACLU suggest that one way to increase internet accessibility is to offer public Wi-Fi services, which the report says should be as open as possible, without requiring accounts, logins, or complex sign-up procedures. Wired customers should also be allowed to run open-access points that anyone can use, the report recommends.

However compelling the report’s ideas are, the reality is that 21 states have laws in place that either ban or limit the build-out of municipal networks. These laws were mainly developed and influenced by the nation’s largest service providers such as AT&T, Comcast, Charter, or CenturyLink, all of which want to maintain the hold on the markets they serve as incumbent providers.