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AT&T defends plan to detect customers' Net piracy

As the telco teams with Hollywood and other copyright holders on tools designed to police for unauthorized content, company vice president wants to downplay concerns about how they'll work.

WASHINGTON--An AT&T executive on Wednesday sought to defuse fears that forthcoming tools aimed at identifying pirates on its network will harm the average Net surfer's online experience.

The planned tactic is "not about heavy-handed tactics that go after the vast majority of our customers that want to consume content legally," AT&T assistant vice president of regulatory policy Brent Olson said at an antipiracy summit here hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "It's about making more content available to more people in more ways going forward."

In June, AT&T announced that it was collaborating with Hollywood studios and other copyright holders to come up with technological solutions to prevent users from swapping massive amounts of content in an unauthorized manner. The idea is to target and identify the most salient offenders, according to news reports at the time, but it remains unclear exactly how the technique will work.

It's too early to offer any more details on what approaches his company is considering, but it's "looking at a variety of avenues," Olson said. But some sort of filtering technique seems to be in the works, as he suggested the result will be a "safe, secure and reliable platform" that will not only make it easier for Net users to access legitimate content but also help to protect them from spyware and viruses.

However the plans shake out, the consumer "must come first," Olson said, adding that whatever solutions are implemented will be "targeted" and "appropriate under the law."

Whether such pledges are enough for AT&T to appease critics who have dogged its practices in the past, however, remains to be seen.

The company has been no stranger to controversy over its content-management techniques, so to speak, in recent months. It stirred up controversy among some Internet users after reports it had censored the anti-Bush remarks of Pearl Jam and other bands who appeared in concerts streamed from its Blue Room Web site. And, let's not forget, it's the target of an ongoing lawsuit accusing it of opening its networks to the National Security Agency without a warrant.