The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on local governments to pursue providing broadband to residents to help counteract federal rollbacks of net neutrality and internet privacy protections.
Last December, the Federal Communications Commission voted to revoke net neutrality, opening the door for telecom companies to give priority to internet traffic they favor and slow down or block other content.
Last April, President Donald Trump signed a bill to overturn FCC internet privacy rules, allowing telecom companies to collect and sell their customers’ private online usage information.
A new report from the ACLU shows how despite these changes, municipal governments still have the option of providing broadband service themselves and implementing the net neutrality and privacy protections that are no longer required of private companies by federal policies.
Hundreds of cities, towns, and counties around the country already have created public broadband systems along these lines, often providing faster and cheaper internet than for-profit telecom companies as well. “The Public Internet Option: How Local Governments Can Provide Network Neutrality, Privacy, and Access for All,” aims to increase those numbers.
The report explains that public broadband service can address the lack of quality internet access in low-income or rural areas and communities of color. Twenty-four million Americans do not have access to high-speed internet at home, either because it is not available or too expensive. Municipally run broadband, which is sometimes provided in conjunction with private technology companies, can ensure that internet service is provided in an equitable way.
“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.”
This week, the 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. The recipients include the mayors of the nation’s five largest cities, as well as many mid-sized 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.
The report includes recommendations for policies that 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.
The report also outlines ways for municipal systems to serve all residents equally, regardless of neighborhoods’ income or racial make-up. 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.
Effective security measures and strong privacy policies are also called for. This means providing clear and meaningful notice about any data collection, requiring that collected data be made anonymous, and notifying users of any law enforcement requests for their data, which would only be given to police with a warrant.
At the prompting of telecom industry lobbyists who see public internet service as a threat, at least 21 state legislatures have enacted restrictions or bans on the ability of municipalities to create their own broadband service. The ACLU report advises residents of those states to push for a reversal of those laws.