Communities across the United States are considering strategies to protect residents’ access to information and their right to privacy. These experiments have a long history, but a new wave of activists have been inspired to seek a local response to federal setbacks to Internet freedom, such as the FCC’s decision to roll back net neutrality protections, and Congress’ early 2017 decision to eliminate user privacy protections.
Internet service providers (ISP) have a financial incentive and the technical ability to block or slow users' access, insert their own content on the sites we visit, or give preferential treatment to websites and services with which they have financial relationships. For many years, net neutrality principles and rules, most recently cemented in the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order, helped prevent much of this activity. Net neutrality helped create a landscape where new ideas and services could develop without being crowded out by political pressure or prioritized fast lanes for established commercial incumbents.
One need only look to two of America’s most dominant web presences to recognize how different the world might be without these protections. Both Facebook and Google began their path to dominance as dorm room experiments. How very different would our social, family, and professional lives look today if MySpace and AltaVista had been able to pay ISPs to prioritize their traffic and throttle that of competitors, hardening the market from competition and disruption?
While proponents of rolling back net neutrality regulations would have us believe that the market will force Internet providers to assure user access, the Federal Communication Commission's 2016 Broadband Progress Report notes that 51 percent of Americans have access to only one provider of high-speed Internet. As a result, incumbent service providers have little incentive to behave well.
Having fought and won the first round in the fight for net neutrality only a few short years ago, we know that there is enormous grassroots energy behind preserving the Internet as a democratic forum of ideas and innovation. We also know that lawmakers at all levels bear a fundamental responsibility to develop policies that maintain privacy protections, guarantee free speech and expression, and reduce the digital divide. Here’s how some are meeting the responsibility.
In the executive summary of its 2010 “National Broadband Plan,” the FCC noted:
Broadband is the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century. Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life. It is enabling entire new industries and unlocking vast new possibilities for existing ones. It is changing how we educate children, deliver health care, manage energy, ensure public safety, engage government, and organize and disseminate knowledge.
Already many communities throughout the country have begun infrastructure-building projects aimed at answering these concerns. Local governments, like those in Ammon, ID, Nelson County, VA, and Santa Fe, NM have invested in building out community-funded broadband programs. These programs allow for the creation of high-capacity access for residents and businesses, as well as improving the accessibility of high-speed broadband service to their least-resourced community members.
While some cities have chosen to build and operate their own broadband networks, many choose instead to focus on developing just the physical infrastructure, establishing an open access network, leasing broadband service access to private ISPs who then maintain user care, service and billing. These communities avoid the high costs that can be involved in finding customers and providing technical assistance and customer service. Instead, by substantially reducing initial costs for new-to-market ISPs, this model overcomes the most significant barrier to competition.
Monopolies have been maintained in many areas not so much because of regulatory restrictions to access but instead by the high cost of building pathways from middle-road Internet junctions to users' homes. By initially assuming these costs, and later recouping them through lease fees to ISPs and substantial savings in their own access costs, cities lay the groundwork for competitive markets; spurring competition between providers. This competition ultimately benefits the residents and business owners purchasing services from these ISPs who, sharing the same open access network, are forced to compete through improved customer care, pricing, and services.
Dig Once, Choose Wisely
Many communities have also recognized that much like roads that are maintained by a city government and used by any trucking company, taxi driver, or individual to carry out business or see to their daily needs, broadband access is a necessary resource for economic growth as well as financial and personal wellbeing. Like roads, gas lines, and municipal water, however, this can mean significant costs. “Dig Once”—a principle often called on in the planning and development of Municipal Broadband infrastructure—is the idea that as roads are repaired, and other capital improvements are made, the cable infrastructure needed to build or improve Internet infrastructure be laid as well. This coordinated development allows for significantly reduced installation costs, but also requires that the hardware being installed have the ability to keep pace with emerging technologies.
Fiber optic cables, unlike copper lines laid many years ago by telephone service providers, or coaxial lines later laid by cable television service providers, allow for almost unlimited expansion as future technologies develop. Fiber optic networks contain the primary technology capable of delivering speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (1 Gbps), the standard in next-generation broadband. According to numerous industry experts, this will be the baseline speed in the future to allow for full access to and use of the Internet for education, health care, civic engagement, entertainment and other services. Where copper lines and coaxial cable use electricity to transmit data, fiber optic strands use pulses of light. Not only do fiber optic lines, where available, already provide monumentally better speeds than the alternatives, but fiber strands also have the additional benefit of an upper limit that is only constrained by the speed of light. As technological improvements develop, service can be upgraded by simply replacing devices at either end of the send/receive path without the need for line replacement.
Much like the baseball legends in Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams, if you build the network the providers will come, but history has already shown us that without strong incentives private ISPs are not likely to prioritize key user needs that don’t provide for immediate commodification. It is essential that policies are implemented that maintain confidentiality and integrity as well.
Tackling the Digital Divide
Open access policies must assure that under-served communities are guaranteed the same level of service as their well-resourced neighbors and local business. Currently, 34 million Americans lack access to high-speed Internet. Studies show that this digital divide increases barriers to employment, the ability for parents to facilitate their children's education, and the ability for families to stay connected. While this may result in increased costs, they would be offset by increased economic opportunity.
Community broadband can have a corollary benefit. By developing policies to which ISPs must adhere in order to lease access to a community-owned network, we gain the ability to mandate the manner in which user information is shared, and how access to the Internet or a specific site can or cannot be manipulated. Current regulations like those included in CalECPA, and those guaranteed through the Warshak rule, suggest baselines for responsible information policies communities should consider.
Some of these baseline policies include guarantees that ISPs:
- Not use, disclose, sell or provide access to a customer's Personally Identifiable Information without the customer’s prior opt-in consent.
- Web Browsing History
- App Usage
- Not refuse to serve, or otherwise prioritize, customers who do not provide this consent to share their information with third parties.
- Not offer a discount or incentive based on customer consent to having their personal information shared.
- This type of “pay for privacy” scheme would disadvantage low-income customers.
- Get affirmative opt-in consent for use and disclosure of anonymized data.
- Retain the most limited data that is required for security practices.
- Require a valid warrant before releasing data in response to legal demands.
- Providing prior notice to users when legally permitted to do so.
- Assertively seek legal authorization to offer notice to users.
Community broadband isn’t a panacea. We must continue the fight to stop the FCC from empowering private ISPs to box and sell pieces of the Internet like cable television packages. But the FCC’s reversal of its 2015 Open Internet Order, combined with Congress’ decision to sign away protections—that would have prevented private ISPs from selling off your personal information—has sounded the whistle that we cannot depend on Washington to prevent the erosion of our privacy, expression, and access to information. Instead, local lawmakers and their constituents must work together to get the job done—and we will.