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Thursday, January 17, 2008

The next big brother: the Internet

Has AT&T Lost Its Mind?
A baffling proposal to filter the Internet.


Chances are that as you read this article, it is passing over part of AT&T's network. That matters, because last week AT&T announced that it is seriously considering plans to examine all the traffic it carries for potential violations of U.S. intellectual property laws. The prospect of AT&T, already accused of spying on our telephone calls, now scanning every e-mail and download for outlawed content is way too totalitarian for my tastes. But the bizarre twist is that the proposal is such a bad idea that it would be not just a disservice to the public but probably a disaster for AT&T itself. If I were a shareholder, I'd want to know one thing: Has AT&T, after 122 years in business, simply lost its mind?

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. That may sound like hyperbole, but what else do you call a system designed to monitor millions of people's Internet consumption? That's not just Orwellian; that's Orwell.

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. 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.
But the most serious problems for AT&T may be legal. Since the beginnings of the phone system, carriers have always wanted to avoid liability for what happens on their lines, be it a bank robbery or someone's divorce. Hence the grand bargain of common carriage: The Bell company carried all conversations equally, and in exchange bore no liability for what people used the phone for. Fair deal.



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