Music, movie lobbyists push to spy on your Net traffic

Recording and motion picture industries continue efforts to persuade broadband providers to detect users' piracy.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
Shira Perlmutter of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, an RIAA affiliate, talks up the benefits for broadband providers of policing users' online activities. The MPAA's Michael O'Leary is third from left. Declan McCullagh/News.com

ASPEN, Colo.--Recording industry and motion picture lobbyists are renewing their push to convince broadband providers to monitor customers and detect copyright infringements, claiming the concept is working abroad and should be adopted in the United States.

A representative of the recording industry said on Monday that her companies would prefer to enter into voluntary "partnerships" with Internet service providers, but pointedly noted that some governments are mandating such surveillance "if you don't work something out."

"Despite our best efforts, we can't do this alone," said Shira Perlmutter, a vice president for global legal policy at the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. "We need the help of ISPs. They have the technical ability to manage the flow over their pipes...The good news is that we're beginning to see some of these solutions emerge, in particular in Europe and Asia." (IFPI is the Recording Industry Association of America's international affiliate.)

During a discussion at the Progress and Freedom Foundation's technology policy conference here, Perlmutter said one filtering solution would involve identifying particular files that are (or are not) permitted to be sent to particular destinations. That would be a "very tailored approach," she said.

The idea isn't exactly new: the Motion Picture Association of America said nearly a year ago that ISPs should police piracy, and one of its member companies asked federal regulators to make this a requirement. AT&T said in January that it's testing technology that would let it become a copyright network cop, and the MPAA subsequently suggested that piracy-prone users should have their accounts terminated because they're "hogging the bandwidth."

In a statement sent to CNET News on Monday, an AT&T spokesman said: "There is nothing inherently wrong with P2P applications, which are legal technologies that are used and welcomed on our network. We have consistently said that AT&T will not become an enforcement agent on the Internet, nor will we inhibit the ability of our customers to access any legal content they want."

Not one of multiple AT&T representatives we contacted responded to our followup question, which was: "Can you confirm that AT&T is not monitoring and has no plans to monitor its customers' traffic or other online activities to detect possible copyright infringements?"

(What's a little odd is that the conference organizers said they couldn't find any broadband provider representatives to participate in the panel discussion--even though Jeff Brueggeman, AT&T's vice president for regulatory planning and policy, was listed as attending the event, and executives from Comcast and Verizon were sitting, silently, in the audience.)

Also at the conference on Monday, IFPI's Perlmutter rattled off a list of countries that have taken at least some steps toward antipiracy filtering, through laws enacted by the legislature or other means: France, South Korea, New Zealand, Belgium, and Australia. In addition, Canada's copyright lobby has pushed for legally-mandated filtering.

In the U.S., she said, referring to broadband providers, "increasingly they will be partnering with us--they will be doing deals with us."

"Despite our best efforts, we can't do this alone. We need the help of ISPs. They have the technical ability to manage the flow over their pipes...The good news is that we're beginning to see some of these solutions emerge, in particular in Europe and Asia."
--Shira Perlmutter, International Federation of the Phonographic Industry

Michael O'Leary, a senior vice president at the Motion Picture Association of America, said the relationship between content companies and broadband providers had become less adversarial than before and both sides had left the "us against them era" behind. (This was probably a reference to the political trench warfare that led Verizon to reject the RIAA's request to identify a subscriber and the fuss over one proposal in Congress to implant anticopying technology into consumer devices.)

O'Leary welcomed what he described as today's "multifaceted approach that involves working effectively with the ISPs and universities."

MovieLabs did conduct tests last year of about a dozen "digital fingerprinting" technologies from companies such as Gracenote, Vobile, and Audible Magic. Certain products worked well in some environments, like on user-generated Web sites and on university networks, MovieLabs' chief executive told us in January. But that's not the same as saying it'll work well for tens of millions of AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon subscribers.

Even if the content industry can sign deals with broadband providers, there are still a slew of unanswered questions--including ones about customers' privacy and how filtering will work in practice. Will piratical transfers be automatically interrupted? Or just slowed? Will piracy-prone users merely find--this is what the IFPI suggests--their accounts suspended? How to detect whether content is licensed, or protected by fair use rights, which vary based on the situation? What if the transfer is encrypted?

Looking ahead a few years from now, the content industry may not be satisfied with voluntary agreements. Let's say that AT&T and some of its larger rivals start to filter pirated material and demonstrate (at least to a first approximation) that it's possible, but one ISP does not. Look for the RIAA and MPAA and their political allies to ask Congress for a law that would transform theretofore "voluntary" agreements into mandatory ones.

CNET News reporter Marguerite Reardon contributed to this report