Just when you're inclined to give big business the benefit of the doubt when it comes to digital surveillance and information gathering, along comes AT&T with plans to scan its vast network for content that runs afoul of intellectual property laws. I've been a strong supporter of the rights of software, information, and entertainment companies to crack down on those who steal and traffic in their protected works. But AT&T's scheme just smells like trouble.For months now, AT&T has said it's testing technology that would let it filter out content that's distributed illegally on its far-flung carrier network. Those plans got more exposure earlier this month when senior VP James Cicconi held forth on the carrier's intentions during a panel session at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "We are very interested in a technology-based solution, and we think a network-based solution is the optimal way to approach this," Cicconi was quoted in a New York Times blog. He went on to say that AT&T is in talks with a number of content companies--including NBC Universal, whose CES booth was the venue for the panel discussion--"to explore various technologies that are out there."
Already, peer-to-peer networks and user-generated sites such as YouTube and MySpace use commercial filtering technology to pluck pirated and other offending content. Suffice it to say that their early efforts have been hit and miss. At a private network level, the University of Florida has had success using internally developed software to block illicit peer-to-peer file sharing among students. As Network Computing reported in 2004, months after the university first deployed the software, 1,500 violators on its Gainesville campus were caught and warned when the software went live, but there were only 19 second-time offenders and no third-timers. In the process, the university improved connectivity and reduced costs by purging its network of this bandwidth-hogging traffic.
That's one of the upsides AT&T sees--cleansing its network of high-maintenance traffic it can't really charge extra for so that it can save some money and serve law-abiding customers better. Another possible motive, says Kelly Hyndman, an IP attorney with Sughrue Mion in Washington, is that AT&T is hoping to strike favorable deals with entertainment and other content partners, positioning itself as the preferred, squeaky-clean conduit for their programming. And every customer who uses the AT&T network to swap programming illegally is a customer who'll be less inclined to buy its U-verse IPTV service.
But there's still the messy practicality of this whole affair. It's one thing for software to skim out spam based on keywords, identify P2P traffic patterns on a closed network, and prevent tightly defined IP from being e-mailed from an office building. It's another thing to expect software to scan a sprawling carrier network with enough nuance to sort contraband movies, music, manuscripts, and other material from the legitimate stuff. Filtering at the carrier network level is a minefield on so many other levels, from customer privacy to public safety. Hyndman posits: What if filtering software were to misread and disable critical network transmissions, like real-time data sent from a pacemaker to a health care provider?
Granted, such worst-case scenarios are the stock-in-trade of the public advocacy profession. But even with breakthrough technology, carrier-based content filtering will never be foolproof--even if, from the content industry's perspective, it's far more expeditious than site-by-site, private-network-by-private-network filtering.
Meantime, if AT&T is now telling the world it has a responsibility to police its network for rogue content, it's essentially distancing itself from the 1998 act that now protects it and other carriers from liability when their customers illegally distribute copyrighted material over their networks. Does AT&T really want to open itself to that kind of scrutiny?
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