Experts Debate on AT&T Filtering the Internet

With Time Warner saying that it would cap and introduce consumption-based billing, things for ISP consumers took another hit with AT&T thinking that they would filter the internet to stop ‘digital piracy’.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

Experts have denounced this idea, saying that it would be a bad idea all around.

The New York Times reported on a small panel discussion which talked about the issues of ‘digital piracy’.

“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.

“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.”

“If I were a shareholder, I’d want to know one thing: Has AT&T, after 122 years in business, simply lost its mind?” Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu asks. “No one knows exactly what AT&T is proposing to build. But if the company means what it says, we’re looking at the beginnings of a private police state.”

“The puzzle is how AT&T thinks that its proposal is anything other than corporate seppuku. First, should these proposals be adopted, my heart goes out to AT&T’s customer relations staff. Exactly what counts as copyright infringement can be a tough question for a Supreme Court justice, let alone whatever program AT&T writes to detect copyright infringement. Inevitably, AT&T will block legitimate materials (say, home videos it mistakes for Hollywood) and let some piracy through. Its filters will also inescapably degrade network performance.” Wu added, “The filter AT&T will really need will be the one that blocks the giant flood of complaints and termination-of-service notices coming its way.”

A debate also posted by the New York Times shows Tim Wu debating general counsel and executive vice president, NBC Universal Rick Cotton on the matter.

“I want to make a preliminary observation. The debate about content protection in the digital world — and most particularly about content protection on the broadband Internet — is really and truly NOT a debate about fair use.” Cotton says, “It’s hard, if not impossible, to have a meaningful discussion on this issue unless we can agree on the following premise: the broadband, digital world is awash in a tidal wave of unlawful, wholesale reproduction and distribution of copyrighted content.”

Wu and Cotton were, by far, not the only ones talking about these issues. Joel Johnson of BoingBoing Gadgets made an appearance on AT&T sponsored show, The Hugh Thompson Show. Joel described the video, “the crew ended up scrubbing the interview about half-way through. Figuring that might happen, I asked my steely-nerved friend Richard Blakeley to tape the first take. I wanted to make sure that we had a record of the event, primarily to ensure that AT&T would have no reason to try to bury the interview entirely”

The video:

EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) documented much of the action. Cindy Cohn commented, “Let’s hope this is the start of a trend. The tombstone on this bad idea should read: “Internet Filtering: Killed by the Power of the Internet.”

The debate has similarities to the privacy and copyright debate of 2005 in Canada where, at the time, the governing party introduced a copyright reform bill and a surveillance bill – known as ‘Bill C-60’ and ‘Bill C-74’ respectively. Internet Law Professor of the University of Ottawa Michael Geist made several posts with regards to the bills. The legislation sparked major debates on the matter, but it was the fall of the government that ultimately killed the bills. Some of the questions that were raised at the time where whether or not the government had a right to spy on citizens or if DRM (Digital rights Management)/TPM (Technical Protection Measures) should be protected by law or even if Canada’s version of Fair Use, known as Fair Dealings, should be strengthened among other things. Like the debate in the US, the Canadian debate had both privacy issues and copyright issues frequently tied together in the debates, but for different reasons. Of course, whether or not the outcomes in Canada will mirror the outcomes in the US is difficult to say.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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