AT&T: Net Vigilante

Are you ready for the online equivalent of vigilantes? It seems that AT&T and other ISPs want to filter net traffic to “stop the transfer of copyrighted material.”

That’s what the New York Times’s Bits blog says an AT&T vice president suggested during a panel discussion about digital piracy at the recent Consumer Electronics Show :

“What we are already doing to address piracy hasn’t been working. There’s no secret there,” said James Cicconi, senior vice president, external & legal affairs for AT&T.

Mr. Cicconi said that AT&T has been talking to technology companies, and members of the M.P.A.A. and R.I.A.A., for the last six months about carrying out digital fingerprinting techniques on the network level.

“We are very interested in a technology-based solution and we think a network-based solution is the optimal way to approach this,” he said. “We recognize we are not there yet but there are a lot of promising technologies. But we are having an open discussion with a number of content companies, including NBC Universal, to try to explore various technologies that are out there.”

Internet civil rights organizations oppose network-level filtering, arguing that it amounts to Big-Brother monitoring of free speech, and that such filtering could block the use of material that may fall under fair-use legal provisions — such as parody, which enjoys special free-speech provisions.

A further comment on the scope of this move is offered on Ars Technica:

There’s a certain creepiness to having one of the country’s largest IP networks doing deep packet inspection and monitoring, but consumers who value their privacy can always go somewhere else, right? Not necessarily. In addition to running a massive network of its own, AT&T runs a good chunk of the backbone infrastructure in the US. It’s a rare bit of traffic that can make it to its destination without passing on to an AT&T-owned network. If the company deploys its anti-piracy technology to all data passing through its networks, AT&T’s “solution” could affect most US Internet users. In addition, many US residents have limited broadband choices.

To me, the two obvious concerns are:

1. Which “copyrighted material” will be filtered?

2. This sets a dangerous precedent for the filtering of content in general.

Consumer privacy versus Big Media paranoia
Setting aside whatever technological solution may or may not exist (and it currently doesn’t), the fact is this concern over copyright infringement by AT&T and other major ISPs is not one that extends to all copyright holders; it’s tailored for two specific industries served by the RIAA and the MPAA.

How many of us are willing to cede the right of privacy to ISPs so they can monitor data on behalf of paranoid trade associations? The RIAA and the MPAA represent industries with failed business models and broadly assume their customers are guilty of copyright infringement by assertion alone.

This is simply not the role of an Internet Service Provider. Copyright holders–not third-party operators–are responsible for enforcing their copyrights. Does anyone suggest this would benefit the consumers of AT&T’s services?

Dangerous Precedent
Currently, the FCC is investigating allegations that Comcast filters internet traffic it suspects uses the file-sharing technology BitTorrent. Despite the bad rap from illegal sharing, businesses are increasingly using BitTorrent for efficient content distribution, making legitimate use of this technology. Comcast’s broad-brush approach to content filtering is reckless, damaging, and just bad business.

Camel’s Nose
If ISPs are allowed to summarily decide what data they will or will not transfer, why would they stop with so-called copyrighted material? They could move on to treat certain data preferentially – which brings up another key money point: net neutrality. “Premium providers” could pay ISPs to ensure their content is delivered quickly and reliably – as opposed to slowly and crappily for non-subscribers.

There is no benefit to the consumer for ISPs to be content police. Under the laws for common carriers, they would not have the authority to do this – nor should they be granted it now.

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