Cable viewed as threat to Web

Consumer advocates to take criticisms of cable firms to FCC


July 29, 1999|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Warning that the open, democratic nature of the Internet is in danger, four consumer-advocacy groups plan to present the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission today with evidence that Internet access providers will soon have greater power to shut rival companies and even individuals out of high-speed data networks.

The charge focuses on cable television companies, which are moving aggressively to sell Internet access. Cable networks offer much faster links to the Internet than typical telephone lines can.

AT&T Corp. has been buying large cable networks around the country; locally, Comcast Corp. sells Internet access over its lines in suburban Baltimore and plans to offer the same service in Baltimore City.

The consumer groups intend to present FCC Chairman William E. Kennard with what they say is proof that cable companies are about to gain the ability to exclude unwanted viewpoints from their fastest Internet links.

One of the documents to be offered is a white paper produced by Cisco Systems Inc., a leading network-equipment firm based in San Jose, Calif.

The paper suggests ways for cable companies "to prevent outside content providers from disrupting the cable network by delivering [high-speed] content without authorization granted by the [cable company]."

The document also discusses how cable companies can adjust the speed of network transmissions according to the Internet address a given piece of information comes from.

The consumer advocates said this paper points to a future in which the companies that control the high-speed cable lines will be able to exercise unprecedented control over who gets favored access to the Internet.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, one of the consumer groups making the claim, said such a system for cable Internet lines "undermines free speech and free expression and puts a huge brake on this economic engine. It's not the Internet. It's a closed system."

"The Internet has been built on spontaneity, serendipity, creativity," Schwartzman said. "The cable model says, `Oh, no, you don't get the same kind of connection to make your business work if you're not a preferred subscriber. You may not get any connection at all.' "

`Inaccurate conclusions'

AT&T spokesman Jim McGann said the consumer groups -- which, in addition to the Media Access Project, include Consumers Union, the Center for Media Education and the Consumer Federation of America -- "are drawing a lot of inaccurate conclusions" from the Cisco paper.

McGann said the paper "talks about how a cable provider can better manage traffic on a network. We manage networks. We don't manage content in any way, shape or form."

Cisco spokesman Tom Galvin read a prepared statement that said in part, "This technology was designed with customers in mind who clearly want tools to protect against offensive content, such as hate or obscene material." He said the company had no further public comment on the matter.

The consumer organizations said they hoped to persuade the FCC to re-examine its current policy on Internet access, which calls for minimal regulation of Internet providers.

Incentive to build

Lisa Pierce, an analyst with Giga Information Group in Norwell, Mass., said current federal policy correctly leaves the cable companies alone as an incentive to build the higher-speed Internet lines, even if this may result in some providers barring certain content, such as advertisements by rival businesses.

"The companies that are taking the risk by updating the infrastructure are expecting some decent return in a realistic time frame. I don't see how they accomplish this at this point without limiting options," Pierce said.

Deborah Lathen, chief of the FCC's cable services bureau, defended the federal policy, which the commission has referred to as "vigilant restraint."

"The success of the Internet has been driven by market forces. We believe the marketplace will demand an open system," she said.

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