Friday, January 18, 2008

AT&T: We'll be the Gatekeeper of the Internet

Writing in Slate, network legal pundit Tim Wu asks, "Why does AT&T want to know what you're downloading?" Wu refers to AT&T's unbelievable proposal to filter all Internet traffic looking for... wait for it... copyright violations.

Today, in its daily Internet operations, AT&T is shielded by a federal law that provides a powerful immunity to copyright infringement. The Bells know the law well: They wrote and pushed it through Congress in 1998, collectively spending six years and millions of dollars in lobbying fees to make sure there would be no liability for "Transitory Digital Network Communications" — content AT&T carries over the Internet. And that's why the recording industry sued Napster and Grokster, not AT&T or Verizon, when the great music wars began in the early 2000s.

Here's the kicker: To maintain that immunity, AT&T must transmit data "without selection of the material by the service provider" and "without modification of its content." Once AT&T gets in the business of picking and choosing what content travels over its network, while the law is not entirely clear, it runs a serious risk of losing its all-important immunity. An Internet provider voluntarily giving up copyright immunity is like an astronaut on the moon taking off his space suit. As the world's largest gatekeeper, AT&T would immediately become the world's largest target for copyright infringement lawsuits.

On the technical side, if I were an AT&T engineer asked to implement this plan, I would resign immediately and look for work at Verizon. AT&T's engineers are already trying to manage the feat of getting trillions of packets around the world at light speed. To begin examining those packets for illegal pictures of Britney Spears would be a nuisance, at best, and a threat to the whole Internet, at worst...

AT&T can't seem to get it over the fact that the Internet has rendered its precious network a bunch of "dumb pipes." They've wasted tens or hundreds of millions on lobbyists, astroturf, and campaign donations trying to defeat network neutrality.

And, at the end of the day, they're still dumb pipes.

If I were an AT&T shareholder, I wouldn't be very pleased.

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