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The Republican-controlled FCC's vote to repeal net neutrality protections prompted nationwide protests. (Photo: Tim Carter/Flickr/cc)

ACLU to Cities: Defend Online Privacy, Net Neutrality With Publicly Owned Municipal Broadband

A new report details how local officials can create publicly owned internet programs that not only protect free speech and privacy, but also are accessible and affordable

Jessica Corbett

In response to Republicans' recent attacks on net neutrality and digital privacy protections at the behest of giant telecommunications companies, the ACLU is calling on local government leaders to establish municipal broadband systems.

"States, cities, towns, and counties should take matters into their own hands by creating publicly owned services that do honor those values and can help ensure an open internet."
—ACLU report

"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," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, and the principal author of an ACLU report released Thursday.

The report, entitled The Public Internet Option, describes the internet as "a necessity, like traditional utilities such as water and power"; denounces moves by the Republican-controlled FCC and Congress to roll back measures meant to protect consumers from privately-owned internet service providers, or ISPs; and encourages local officials to invest in publicly owned internet infrastructure. It emphasizes the need for internet options that not only protect free speech and privacy, but also are accessible and affordable.

"If the commercial providers are determined to make money by violating the privacy and speech rights of their users, and if some policymakers in Washington are determined to clear the way for them to do that," the report reads, "then states, cities, towns, and counties should take matters into their own hands by creating publicly owned services that do honor those values and can help ensure an open internet."

Outlining the many options available for ensuring internet freedom at the local level, the report explains: "Communities can go all the way and provide high-speed fiber connections directly to their residents' homes, along with internet services to go along with them. Or they can leverage their ownership of crucial assets such as conduits (tubes, pipes, tiles, and other casings for cables) to require private-sector providers using those assets to respect free-internet principles. Or any strategy in between."

Acknowledging concerns "that government-run broadband service will be bureaucratic an inefficient," the report points out that "cable and television internet service providers are among the industries most hated by consumers," while the public internet service in Chattanooga, Tennessee "was rated in 2017 as the nation's top ISP in terms of consumer satisfaction."

Critics of big telecom companies have long advocated for municipal broadband systems, which has provoked powerful "misinformation" campaigns paid for by ISPs like Comcast. The report notes that "unfortunately, telecom lobbyists have convinced at least 21 state legislatures to enact restrictions or outright bans on the ability of municipalities in those states to create their own broadband service—thereby leaving people no choice but to utilize the commercial services that are often slow, unjustifiably expensive, and now poisoned by their lack of protections for privacy and network neutrality."

Still, cities and counties are fighting back. In November, for example, the city of Fort Collins, Colorado approved a ballot measure to invest $150 million in a city-owned broadband utility, despite a well-funded effort by the telecom lobby to sway the vote. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), which reviewed the ACLU report, has developed an interactive map for tracking local broadband initiatives nationwide.

The ACLU sent its report to more than 100 mayors in 30 states who have spoken out against the federal rollback of net neutrality protections. For those who are interested in advocating for implementing publicly owned broadband systems in their areas, the ACLU suggested starting with the Community Connectivity Toolkit, a resource developed by ILSR. 

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