Community broadband is under attack yet again – this time from the FCC. At an event last week put on by the telecommunications industry, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly strangely declared that access to the internet is a threat to the First Amendment. To wit:
“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.”
His statements seem to suggest that community broadband operates from some sort of central censorship authority, but he offers no actual evidence to back that up. Of the 750 community broadband networks available in the US, most were created out of desperation after their localities were abandoned by the large telecommunications monopolies that provide service the US. (Some of these same providers have actually admitted to limiting the communications of first responders during crisis.) In most cases, community networks provide a vital lifeline for budding local economies, schools and other anchor institutions that rely on connectivity.
The only potential threat is to the future revenues of monopolies that have already said publicly that they have no intention to do business in these many of these areas. In localities where a municipal network exists alongside private providers, the monopolies have been forced to compete on price and speed, which tends to upset shareholders, even if it is a net positive for consumers.
Motherboard first reported the comments and noted that the closest O’Rielly got to providing evidence was to say that the terms of service for some municipal networks make it such that users can be removed for transmitting hate speech. State, federal and local governments throughout the US already have laws on the books prohibiting hate speech so it is somewhat curious how it would be considered extralegal censorship to remove a user from a network because they chose to violate laws that were on the books before the existence of the network. Government-backed entities are required to follow their own laws. Incidentally, private companies can also remove users from their networks if the user is found to be in violation of local, state or federal law.
Private telecommunications companies have also worked tirelessly to get states to pass laws that censor the ability of municipalities to build community networks. Preemption laws are on the books in 21 states restricting the will of local citizens that desire service commensurate with that in other more urban parts of the country, even if they vote for it as part of a ballot initiative. Private monopolies are also suing states that have attempted to enforce free and open internet service (aka ‘net neutrality’) in their localities.