ACLU urges cities to build public broadband to protect net neutrality

ACLU urges cities to build public broadband to protect net neutrality
© Greg Nash

The ACLU is calling on cities across the country to build their own public municipal broadband networks to help preserve net neutrality after the Federal Communications Commission repealed the open internet rules.

In a report released Thursday morning, the civil liberties group argued that in the absence of the FCC’s rules cities could give residents an alternative to private service providers who will soon no longer be required to treat all web traffic equally.

“Internet service has become as essential as utilities like water and electricity, and local governments should treat it that way,” Jay Stanley, an ACLU policy analyst who authored the report, said in a statement.

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“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 added.

The ACLU sent the report to more than 100 mayors across the country who had spoken out against the FCC’s decision to scrap the rules.

The Republican-led FCC voted in December to repeal the Obama-era consumer protections that prohibited internet providers from blocking or throttling websites, or creating paid internet fast lanes. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argued that the regulations were too onerous and that existing antitrust and consumer protection laws are enough to keep service providers in check.

But the ACLU and other groups say that repealing the rules threatens online speech and the free flow of information online.

Democratic governors and legislatures across the country have responded to the repeal by implementing their own state net neutrality protections. Supporters have applauded those moves but warn that they are susceptible to legal challenges given that the FCC preempted the states from filling the void with their own rules.

The ACLU’s new report calls for cities to build internet networks that abide by net neutrality principles in order to ensure that users have an alternative if internet providers start abusing their powers over access.

Such proposals are gaining traction in major cities like San Francisco, and have already seen some success in places like Chattanooga, Tenn. But the telecom industry has fought back against municipal broadband projects; twenty-two states have prohibited localities from building public networks, according to the report.

Still, the ACLU argues that municipal networks are one of the few courses remaining for local leaders who believe in net neutrality.

“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 — 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,” the report reads.