Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A crackdown on piracy or the web?

ATT announced today it would begin filtering pirated music, films and other content from its network -- something every ISP had long avoided up until this point. The L.A. Times reports ATT began working with movie studios and record companies last week to develop technology to keep the biggest pirates off its service.

From the L.A. Times:

As ATT has begun selling pay-television services, the company has realized that its interests are more closely aligned with Hollywood, [James] Cicconi, [ATT's senior vice president] said in an interview Tuesday. The company's top leaders recently decided to help Hollywood protect the digital copyrights to that content.

"We do recognize that a lot of our future business depends on exciting and interesting content," he said.

But critics say the company is going to be fighting a losing battle and angering its own customers, and it should focus instead on developing incentives for users to pay for all the content they want.

Few doubt that piracy is a significant problem. The major U.S. studios lost $2.3 billion last year to online piracy and an additional $3.8 billion to bootleg DVDs, according to industry statistics. AT&T can help only with the online losses, which the industry said were growing faster than those from counterfeit DVDs.

University of Ottawa professor and Toronto Star technology columnist Michael Geist takes issue with the move on his blog. The piece is titled "Is Content Filtering the New DRM?"

There was a time when Internet service providers would not touch the idea of blocking or filtering content, particularly after the Stratton Oakmont decision in the U.S., which intimated that ISPs that got into the content monitoring business would face potential liability for legal issues arising from such content. No longer. Over the past two years, there has been growing concern about net neutrality issues including content blocking (Telus), application discrimination (Shaw on VoIP), traffic shaping (Rogers), and content delivery tariffs (Videotron).

Not only does this sound like a DRM-style pipe dream - content filtering replacing DRM as the mistaken "solution" to copyright concerns - but it raises enormous concerns about false positives that filter out legitimate content and privacy implications for customer monitoring. Moreover, by moving down this path, ATT faces the prospect of demands to monitor other content, aggressive legislative requirements to do so, and potential liability when things go wrong. Rather than working on ways to respond to consumer demands, this is yet another step toward annoying the public and opening a pandora's box of legal concerns.

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