ACLU: To Protect Democracy, Cities Should Build Their Own ISPs

The American Civil Liberties Union has a message for politicians pledging to preserve net neutrality: it’s time for cities to start public ISPs.

After the Federal Communications Commission killed federal net neutrality protections last fall, local legislators across the country have stated their support for a free and open internet. But while sending letters to congress and the FCC opposing the changes is well and good, the ACLU argues in a new report published Thursday that creating municipally-owned ISPs is the best way to preserve net neutrality.

“Internet service has become as essential as utilities like water and electricity, and local governments should treat it that way,” Jay Stanley, the report’s principal author and a senior policy analyst with the ACLU, said in a press release. “With the Trump administration and for-profit companies abandoning (net neutrality) values, what we’re seeing around the country is that local governments can protect them and provide access for all.”

The ACLU sent a copy of its report to more than 100 mayors in 30 states who had expressed support for net neutrality. It examines existing municipal broadband initiatives, such as in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to demonstrate that there are multiple different successful models for rolling out a utility-like local internet, and suggests best practices for getting a network started. Private-public partnerships and co-op ISPs are another option beyond supplying internet like water or power. These options have succeeded in many cities and towns around the country already, are shown to be reliable, high-speed, and more affordable than private ISPs.

The ACLU frames access to the internet as essentially a democratic right, calling out private ISPs for focusing too much on profit at the expense of people’s privacy.

“Fair access to high-quality internet is a constitutional issue because such access is essential to our ability to access and share information, which in turn enables us to shape our political, civic, and social systems,” the report reads. “In a democracy, it is vital

that citizens have actual and felt control over the institutions that govern their lives—including their increasingly crucial broadband providers.”

Big Telecom has long fought against municipally-run internet, claiming that it’s unfair for the government to compete with private businesses on the free market. The trouble is that, for many American towns, the private ISP companies aren’t offering any other options. Combined with the lack of net neutrality protections, the ACLU argues that municipal networks are the best option.

“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.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .