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Cable operators pledge to keep Net open

A trade group sends a letter to the FCC claiming operators will not cut marketing deals that could hinder subscribers' ability to freely access whatever Net content they choose.

WASHINGTON--Cable operators are seeking to reassure government regulators that they will not cut marketing deals that could hinder their Internet subscribers' ability to freely access whatever Net content they choose.

In a letter sent Friday to the Federal Communications Commission, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said that "cable operators have no intention of blocking access to content" and that no government regulations are necessary to guarantee this.

The trade association's arguments come in response to a lobbying campaign launched in November by a group of technology companies including, Apple Computer, Microsoft, eBay and Yahoo. That coalition asked the FCC to publish regulations ensuring that Americans with high-speed Internet access would enjoy complete "access to Internet-based information, products and services."

Though their fears are entirely hypothetical for now, the coalition is worried about cable operators' contractual agreements with users, which permit placing pop-up ads on particular Web sites in the future--an advertisement for could appear during a visit to, for example--and give operators license to offer zippier access to certain Web sites.

The cable industry's stiffly worded response to such fears is that these practices are not taking place now; they likely will not take place in the future; any regulations imposed by the FCC would have unintended negative consequences; and, in any case, the FCC does not have the legal authority to intervene.

"Cable consumers have--and have always had--full access to Internet content," the letter to the FCC says. "Regulation of the sort proposed by that purports to prohibit restrictions on such access would inevitably be used to thwart legitimate business practices and arrangements that have nothing to do with blocking access to content. These efforts would deter investment and innovation in the provision of high-speed Internet services. Moreover, nothing in the Communications Act gives the (FCC) the authority to impose such regulation."

In comments filed with the FCC in June, argued that "it is not delay regulation until anticonsumer behaviors become apparent. The commission needs to send a strong signal from the very start that consumer choice of Internet-based information, products and services is inviolate."

Free-market advocates assert that there's no need for the FCC to intervene, saying there has been no evidence of any problems so far, and even if problems arise, consumers tend to choose an Internet provider with fewer restrictions.