June 14, 2007 | By Derek Slater

AT&T to Play Copyright Cop, Sell Out Customers

AT&T has announced plans to sell out its customers.

No, this time we're not talking about spying on telephone and Internet communications on the government's behalf. AT&T is now kowtowing to the entertainment industry and jointly developing undisclosed technical measures in yet another desperate attempt to stop "piracy."

On its face, this may seem reasonable, but problems arise once you start to ask hard questions about exactly what AT&T's up to.

AT&T's plan is currently pure vaporware, and it has stated that "once a technology was chosen, the company would look at privacy and other legal issues." In other words, the AT&T Internet traffic cop appears poised to shoot first, and ask questions about the impact on your civil liberties and ability to access lawful content and applications later.

There are plenty of ways that an "anti-piracy" technology could do damage to online freedom. Innovation and free speech flourish online precisely because ISPs have traditionally routed all traffic neutrally, without discriminating in favor or against particular content or applications. Will AT&T arbitrarily degrade traffic from certain applications with lawful uses (a la the Canadian ISP Rogers)? Will AT&T start peaking into its customers' packets with filtering technology that's bound to haphazardly restrict legitimate, lawful traffic (a la Audible Magic)? For example, will users be able to use me-to-me services and send copyrighted files to themselves, such as by uploading them to a music locker service like MP3Tunes or streaming video via the Slingbox?

And will whatever measures the telco takes meaningfully reduce "piracy"? There's scant evidence that filtering will make a dent, AT&T's actions will inevitably spur countermeasures, and changes in technology are making it increasingly cheap and easy to copy data in a variety of ways, both online and offline.

The bottom line is that the telco giant appears ready to serve big entertainment companies' interests regardless of its customers' wishes. Instead, it ought to be pushing the entertainment companies towards a better way forward that lets fans keep sharing and gets artists paid.

See also Alex Curtis' commentary on Public Knowledge's blog.

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