January 10, 2008

AT&T: "Music and Movie Piracy is More Important than Child Abuse or Terrorism"

Greetings. Why does AT&T apparently feel that protecting the financial interests of the entertainment industry is more important than fighting terrorism or child abuse? Let's explore how recent AT&T statements concerning their Internet operations provide an illuminating look into their corporate priorities.

The saga of ISP plans to become the prying eyes of the Internet continues to unfold, most recently with AT&T's public enthusiasm for the concept of monitoring at the network level for what they define as copyright violations associated with pirated entertainment materials (e.g. those satanic P2P applications).

In response to some of my recent postings on this subject, a large number of readers have asked me various forms of basically the same very provocative question.

To wit: If AT&T is going to openly spy on the contents of data traffic flows between individual Internet users and take actions based on that surveillance, are they also taking responsibility to find, remove, and/or report all other potentially illicit, dangerous, or otherwise objectionable materials on the network? That is, by intruding themselves into non-public data communications streams in this manner, are they essentially abdicating their effective immunity to civil or criminal actions related to data transiting their network facilities?

I'm not referring here to whatever secret data pipelines AT&T has been feeding to NSA or other spooks in furtherance of illegal government surveillance operations, but rather the company's openly discussed public plans for routine network content surveillance, which have been receiving so much publicity lately.

This topic presents a range of legal questions that would ultimately have to be settled by courts -- and there's no guarantee that those courts will necessarily rule the way that AT&T's legal team have presumably assumed.

But it's certainly a fascinating issue, with a number of decidedly non-trivial implications.

Keep in mind that we're talking about the surveillance of private data in end-to-end user communications. This is a wholly different situation from, for example, YouTube's filtering of materials that have been submitted by users for public dissemination. While one can argue about particular specifics, in general it's clear that YouTube or other public access sites should be free to apply whatever rules they wish to filter submitted items that will be seen by the public on those sites -- in fact it would be crazy not to apply some sort of mechanism to classify and/or remove various types of items in such a public viewing environment.

Nor are AT&T's new plans analogous to scanning for viruses or spam before they reach subscriber mailboxes -- those are functions provided for the presumed benefit of those subscribers themselves, and generally can be controlled to a significant extent by users if they wish.

What AT&T is now talking about is clearly most similar to straightforward wiretapping of individual, private communications. It appears to be the same principle that would apply if AT&T decided to monitor all of our phone calls to listen for discussions of illicit or illegal activity, and then act on that surveillance.

There's only one really significant difference -- such widespread monitoring of phone call contents would typically be obviously illegal (at least in the U.S.) -- but monitoring of Internet data contents still resides in something of a grey area, and both ISPs and government have been all too willing to exploit this situation.

But apart from these legal niceties, and the fact that encryption would render most content surveillance (though not necessarily traffic analysis) moot in short order, it's certainly the case that AT&T's plans represent a major thrust into a brave new world of Internet content spying. And as such, one can't help but wonder about their particular choice of targets and priorities.

If AT&T and perhaps other ISPs are ready to jump into this particular deep quagmire, why haven't though chosen to seek out uses of the network that presumably have truly negative consequences for all of society, not just for the pocketbooks of the entertainment giants?

Hell, if you're going to make the case that's it's OK and beneficial to monitor Internet traffic content at the network level, don't start by kowtowing to the MPAA and RIAA -- let's see some of that old Ma Bell AT&T guts like in the old days!

Here's what you do ... Forget the music and movies for now and let's really concentrate on targets that will be an easy sell for that segment of the population who thinks privacy is an antiquated old idea ready for the trash heap anyway!

Announce that you're going to monitor the Internet for anything that might be child porn related. Proclaim that you'll sift through every unencrypted byte for any communications that might suggest illegal activity -- everything from overdue library books to terrorism to political troublemakers.

If you're going to push the idea of tossing the Constitution and Bill of Rights out the window, at least do it with vigor, with substance, with style! Don't waste your revolutionary spying effort on silly songs and forgettable films! Give the surveillance-mongers something that they can really dig their teeth into for some serious publicity and propaganda!

True, by concentrating your surveillance platform on unencrypted P2P you might stand to make a significant dent in all of that darn data that you can't monetize the way you'd wish, but we certainly know that you wouldn't dream of implementing content spying just to make yourself and the entertainment moguls mere money!

And ya' know what? If people don't want to believe that you'd do this all out of a true concern for society and not just a matter of simple greed, you should just tell 'em to go stuff themselves!

After all, you're not Google! You don't have a "don't be evil" creed. You're AT&T. You're the phone company. You're an ISP. You're allowed to be evil!

Show us what you're made of, AT&T! Be a real example for other ISPs! It's your network. It's your data! We peon Internet users will just have to learn to fall into line with your world view, or go back to smoke signals and cave paintings.

Now get out there and show those beer-infused guys who founded this country -- and who scribbled down all of that constitutional nonsense -- just how obsolete their notions really are in the 21st century!

Make Big Brother Mother Bell proud!

And thank you for using AT&T.


Posted by Lauren at January 10, 2008 01:46 PM | Permalink
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