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AT&T considers filtering for pirated content

During a panel discussion at CES, the head of the carrier's legal team says AT&T is considering using technology that can filter and block copyrighted content.

AT&T is considering using filtering technology to stop pirated content from traversing its network, according to a New York Times blog posted from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

According to the blog, James Cicconi, senior vice president, external and legal affairs for AT&T, said during a panel discussion Tuesday about digital piracy that the carrier is already discussing the possibility of using filtering technology with content companies like NBC Universal.

James Cicconi

"We are very interested in a technology-based solution, and we think a network-based solution is the optimal way to approach this," Cicconi said in the New York Times blog. "We recognize we are not there yet but there are a lot of promising technologies."

Filtering is already used on sites like YouTube and Microsoft's Soapbox to keep copyrighted videos from being shared illegally. But using this kind of technology on a much wider scale at the network level is controversial and has stirred up protest from some consumer groups.

A firestorm of protest ignited last year when cable operator Comcast was accused of filtering BitTorrent traffic. The company denied it was filtering traffic, but later admitted it "shapes" traffic to ensure that its network is not overwhelmed. Federal Communications Chairman Kevin Martin said Tuesday that an investigation will be launched to see if Comcast has violated any of the agency's policies.

Groups that oppose filtering say the Internet should be kept open or "neutral." They believe allowing carriers to look into packets flowing over their network to determine if they should be blocked or not is a dangerous practice that could eventually lead to abuses like censorship.

And maybe they are right. Just look at what happened this summer on AT&T's own video streaming Web site. During a Webcast of the Lollapalooza concert in Chicago, AT&T bleeped portions of the Pearl Jam song "Daughter," in which singer Eddie Vedder altered lyrics to include anti-Bush sentiments. Other bands had also been censored on AT&T's Webcasts, including the John Butler Trio and Flaming Lips. AT&T admitted that these remarks had been deleted, but the company said these were mistakes made by an overzealous contractor hired to monitor the performances for obscene language.

AT&T's Cicconi tried to quell fears of massive censorship or carrier snooping in a conversation with the New York Times reporter by saying: "Whatever we do has to pass muster with consumers and with policy standards. There is going to be a spotlight on it."

The debate over traffic filtering is likely to heat up this year, especially as there's an increase in technology that makes deep packet inspection possible. I'm going to dig a little deeper into this subject in an upcoming story, so stay tuned.