Should AT&T police the Internet?

AT&T has said it is testing filtering technology that will look for copyrighted material. But should the company be acting as Internet cop?

A decade after the government said that AT&T and other service providers don't have to police their networks for pirated content, the telecommunications giant is voluntarily looking for ways to play traffic cop.

For the past several months, AT&T executives have said the company is testing technology to filter traffic on its network to look for copyrighted material that is being illegally distributed. James Cicconi, senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs for AT&T, .

"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 a article. "We recognize we are not there yet but there are a lot of promising technologies. But we are having an open discussion with a number of content companies, including NBC Universal, to try to explore various technologies that are out there."

"Ultimately, our customers and their online experience come first. This is not about the vast majority of customers who consume content online legally. This is about combating illegal activity."
--Michael Balmoris, spokesman, AT&T

AT&T's plans would turn the nation's largest telephone company into a kind of network cop, a role that some say could turn dangerous for the company. For one, filtering packets to determine whether they contain copyrighted material raises privacy concerns. And AT&T customers who have already been concerned about the company's alleged role in the National Security Agency's domestic spy program, could take their broadband, TV and telephony business to a competitor. Also, AT&T could be opening itself up to a mountain of legal troubles.

"I can't see why filtering traffic would be of interest to AT&T," said Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University and an Internet pundit. "AT&T spent six years and millions of dollars lobbying for a law so they wouldn't have to filter for copyrighted material on their network. And now they want to do it."

AT&T hasn't indicated which technology it might use. But it has confirmed that it's been testing software from a number of companies including Vobile, a start-up in which AT&T has also invested. The carrier has also said that it's been working for the past six months with members of the Motion Picture Association of America and Recording Industry Association of America to figure out ways in which it can curb the flow of illegal content on its network.

AT&T argues that it must get involved in stopping the flow of pirated content because much of this content is shared using peer-to-peer protocols, which eats up valuable network bandwidth, slowing network connections for many of its customers.

"Ultimately, our customers and their online experience come first," said Michael Balmoris, a spokesman for AT&T. "This is not about the vast majority of customers who consume content online legally. This is about combating illegal activity."

Content agreements an issue
AT&T is also likely driven by its need to strike deals with content providers for its U-Verse IPTV service. Voluntarily agreeing to filter traffic on its network could help the company get a more favorable deal with content owners, such as NBC Universal or Disney.

Rick Cotton, executive vice president and general counsel for NBC Universal, said he often argues the network management point when trying to persuade Internet service providers to filter traffic. But he admits that content agreements also factor into the discussion.

"I also make the argument that it doesn't make sense to allow people to utilize (the carriers') infrastructure to steal material that (the carriers are) trying to acquire for another part of their business," he said. "Can I say which consideration affects which ISPs? I can't answer that question. But I do think it's something they ought to take into account."

So far, most ISPs have remained tight-lipped about whether they are testing content filtering on their networks. The other two major phone companies in the country, Verizon Communications and Qwest Communications International, declined to comment for this story. Time Warner Cable, the second largest cable operator in the nation, wouldn't confirm whether it is testing filtering technology, but a spokesman said the company is working closely with copyright holders to address the piracy issue.

"Content filtering is like the cops knocking on everyone's door to make sure there are no stolen goods inside. Searching packets on a network throws out the whole idea of innocent until proven guilty."
--Art Brodsky, spokesman, Public Knowledge

Comcast, the largest cable operator in the country, said it is not using or testing content filtering technology. Last year, the company got into hot water when there were reports that it had been slowing down some peer-to-peer traffic when the network was congested. The Federal Communications Commission is .

That said, the movement to involve ISPs in monitoring and filtering traffic has been growing internationally. In November, ISPs and content producers in France signed an agreement, backed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to begin testing filtering technology on carrier networks. A similar movement is afoot in the United Kingdom. And late last year, officials in Australia said they hoped ISPs would implement filtering technology to remove pornography from Internet connections that connect to schools.

These moves come despite widespread criticism from consumer activists that content filtering violates customers' privacy.

"Content filtering is like the cops knocking on everyone's door to make sure there are no stolen goods inside," said Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge, a digital-rights public interest group. "Searching packets on a network throws out the whole idea of innocent until proven guilty."

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