Broadband Bill of Rights


The impending marriage of television and the Internet, consummated with the help of next-generation set-top boxes that will add online access to the cable industry's multi-channel offerings, promises to extend the reach of the Internet into millions of US households. But at what cost? Will the Internet, historically an open, diverse, and democratic environment, fall under the sway of cable's closed, top-down architecture? Will our online choices effectively be limited to a handful of featured sites on the cable company's electronic program guide? Will the pay-per-view paradigm, in which premium fees are charged for special-interest and on-demand programming, be applied to the World Wide Web? Even at "discount" rates (for those who elect to add high-speed Internet access to their cable subscriptions, or who accept other "bundled" offerings), this may be too high a price to pay for broadband delivery.

These are among the issues that must be addressed as the Internet evolves from a phone-line, PC-based communications system into the entertainment and e-commerce extravaganza known as interactive televisions (ITV). To the extent that ITV brings the Internet (at vastly increased speeds) to millions of households that lack PCs, it will prove beneficial. But we should not be asked to trade our online freedoms for the speed and simplicity of cable's broadband Internet. The democratic traditions of the original, "dial-up" Internet, in short, must be preserved in the broadband era.

To that end, and as a means of measuring the performance of cable companies against the standards of the open Internet, the Center for Digital Democracy offers this Broadband Bill of Rights, 10 fundamental principles for ensuring the future openness and diversity of the Internet. Although efforts to forecast the future of the Internet are often futile, we share the sobering assessment of The Economist, which expressed the fear recently that "…the last decade of the 20th century might come to be seen as an all-too-brief golden age of openness and innovation that was fatally undermined by short-termism and greed." Fortunately, there is still time to intervene in the design and deployment of the new broadband networks, and to make sure that the new system serves as effectively as it sells.

The Internet has long been characterized by the free flow of information, supported by the basic principles of openness (of access), equality (of data), diversity (of content), and freedom (of expression). Network growth and market forces alike will inevitably yield various embellishments on basic data delivery. Some of these variations will arise in response to traffic congestion and the need to distinguish among different data types; others will result from efforts to exploit the demand for premium service, including expedited transport using proprietary networks. But neither the evolution of networking technologies, nor the introduction of value-added services, should be permitted to undermine the fundamental openness of the Internet, either by creating artificial bottlenecks or otherwise constraining unnecessarily the free flow of network traffic. For these reasons, CDD recommends the adoption of the following 10 principles to maintain the basic open, democratic, nondiscriminatory character of the Internet.

1. Choice: Open-access regulations are needed to ensure that independent Internet service providers (ISPs) and content producers will be able to offer their services on all cable, DSL, and wireless platforms, enabling users to enjoy the same full range of programming via broadband that is now guaranteed in the dial-up Internet.

2. Nondiscrimination: While it may be necessary to arbitrate among competing claims on network resources, no transport-management schemes (e.g., policy-based routing) should be used simply to favor certain programming over other content, by artificially constraining "competitive" or nonaffiliated fare.

3. Privacy: Existing privacy regulations (e.g., the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, as amended by the Cable Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992) need to be extended to include all interactive media, regardless of the means of delivery, with oversight by the Federal Trade and Federal Communications Commissions.

4. Open Systems: The Internet's "end-to-end" architecture must be preserved, and to the extent that "walled gardens" offer only a subset of Internet content, they should be clearly labeled. So-called "managed content areas," designed to highlight a network owner's proprietary or affiliated content, should include clearly marked "exit paths" to the Internet at large.

5. Interoperability: Set-top boxes, which are poised to become one of the most important household appliances, should be both nonproprietary (i.e., interoperable among cable systems) and transparent (i.e., user configurable). Subscribers should not be expected to host "black boxes" (including hard-disk video recorders that surreptitiously reserve a portion of disk space for targeted advertising) as part of their ITV implementations.

6. Public Interest Obligations: The public-interest principle, more often than not honored in the breach in the world of broadcast, and still under consideration for digital television (DTV) broadcasters, should inform the world of ITV as well. A small portion of the extra capacity that broadcasters have gained in the switch to DTV, as well as the enhancements that cable operators will offer under ITV, should be devoted to community-based informational and educational purposes.

7. Civic Content: The broadband revolution is too valuable an opportunity to be squandered solely on entertainment and commerce. The technology should be harnessed, in some small measure, to serve the needs of civil society, including enhanced campaign coverage, community forums, cultural programming, and noncommercial information exchange.

8. Educational Opportunities: The new interactive media of broadband should serve all aspects of lifelong learning, meeting the educational needs of young and old alike through pre-school programming, supplementary classroom material, distance learning, vocational training, and other educational fare.

9. Children's Programming: The meager requirements for children's programming on television (currently three hours of educational and informational programming per week) should be supplemented in the broadband era. Existing protections against excessive and misleading advertising during children's TV programs, similarly, should serve as a guide for advertising in online programming for children and youth.

10. Digital Divide: Even as we close the gap that separates the connected from the unconnected, we must make certain that new, more subtle forms of digital inequity do not arise, in which the haves vs. the have-nots are replaced by the haves vs. the have-mores. Accordingly, Universal Service requirements should be updated to include advanced telecommunications services.