FCC Commissioner calls public broadband 'ominous threat' to First Amendment

FCC Commissioner calls public broadband 'ominous threat' to First Amendment
© Anna Moneymaker

A Republican Federal Communications Commission Commissioner called publicly provided broadband a “threat” to the First Amendment, referring to unclear and unspecified censorship.

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“I would be remiss if my address omitted a discussion of a lesser-known, but particularly ominous, threat to the First Amendment in the age of the Internet: state-owned and operated broadband networks,” FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said during a speech he gave last Wednesday.

O'Rielly claimed that “municipalities such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, have been notorious for their use of speech codes in the terms of service of state-owned networks, prohibiting users from transmitting content that falls into amorphous categories like ‘hateful’ or ‘threatening,’” citing research by Professor Enrique Armijo of the Elon University School of Law.

There are no well-known examples of public broadband censoring content in the U.S.

“There is no history of municipal networks censoring anyone's speech,” Christopher Mitchell, a community broadband expert and Director of the Institute for Local Reliance, told Motherboard.

Free-speech advocate the American Civil Liberties Union has advocated for municipal broadband as a possible option for internet service, noting that “strict anti-censorship rules” should be established.

There are around 750 municipal broadband providers in the U.S. Some, like Nextlight in Longmont, Colo., and EPB Broadband in Chattanooga, Tenn., one of the cities O’Rielly named, are home to some of the fastest and highest consumer rated internet in the country.

Public broadband has also been seen as a solution in bringing high-speed internet to underserved, rural areas that large companies like Comcast, AT&T and Charter often overlook because of the high cost and low-profit potential of installing broadband in such regions.

Republicans like O’Rielly have largely been opposed to public broadband, but have usually based their criticisms of it in arguments about the free market. They’ve said that it’s a less efficient and potentially stifling option compared to what private companies like Comcast and AT&T can offer.