WASHINGTON--A coalition of technology companies warned on Monday that cable companies might try to interpose themselves as gatekeepers between customers and Internet content.
In a three-page letter to the Federal Communications Commission, the group, which includes Amazon.com, Apple Computer, Microsoft and others, called on the agency to preserve Internet users' "unfettered ability to reach lawful content and services and to communicate and interact with each other."
"Despite our differences on the details of a solution, we are unanimous in our agreement that the government must ensure that transmission network operators do not encumber relationships between their customers and destinations on the network," read the letter from the ad-hoc alliance, called the Coalition of Broadband Users and Innovators.
The FCC is reviewing the rules that will apply to cable and other forms of high-speed Internet access.
Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, which is a member of the coalition, admits that the group's concerns are hypothetical so far.
"There are practices in place that do have a discriminatory effect in minor ways," Schwartzman said. "Selective caching of favored content providers is in use now."
Schwartzman said he's worried because cable companies' contracts with their customers might permit the practice.
"What is undeniable is that there are clear assertions in the various cable operators' user agreements asserting the right to do this and much more," Schwartzman said. "They're preserving their legal authority to do this."
In comments filed with the FCC in June, Amazon.com argued that "it is not sufficient for the (commission) to 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.
"I don't think it's a worry," said Wayne Crews, an analyst at the Cato Institute. "What we have to do is let different business models flourish. What you may find is that some broadband providers want to be closed and others want to be fully open. We don't know. Regulators don't know. It's ridiculous for the FCC to regulate this when we don't know what tomorrow's networks are going to look like."
Other members of the Coalition of Broadband Users and Innovators include the Consumer Electronics Association, eBay, the Walt Disney Company and Yahoo.