AT&T sez: “Your Network Are Belong To Us”

The “Lafayette did the right thing on July 16th 2005” department:

AT&T has reasserted its intention to dig through every packet you send over the internet to decide if it (not a court or a policeman) thinks that your content should be blocked. It boils downt to this: they think that, if on the balance, they would benefit financially from blocking your content they should be allowed to. And they are willing to say so straightforwardly.

Anyone who thinks the Net Neutrality wars are over has got another think coming. And, as before, AT&T (nee SBC & BS) is leading the way in demanding a newly privatized, corporatized internet. Connoisseurs of net history will recall that AT&T Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre kicked off the net neutrality wars by asserting the right to overthrown the common carriage rules that are in place and to establish fast, privileged lanes for special (read: large, wealthy, paying) purveyors of content. Their stuff would go to the head of the line. Your stuff would….wait. Last winters’ net neutrality battle that raged over the internet and in Congress and which eventually killed what seemed at one time a sure-thing telecom “reform” bill was a direct result of Whitacres impolitic utterances. (If you think that Big Ed’s recent retirement changes things you might want to read Mike’s recent post on his successor: it’s not Ed, is not his clone Stephenson, its not the senior VP whose interview kicks off this review–it’s the corporate culture of AT&T.)

Here’s the gist of the story from the LATimes:

In mid-March, executives at Viacom and the Motion Picture Assn. of America separately approached [AT&T senior vice president] Cicconi with the idea of a partnership. Content providers have long looked for a network solution to piracy, but no operator had been willing to join with them.

AT&T thought about it and:

The company’s top leaders recently decided to help Hollywood protect the digital copyrights to that content.

Leading to a summit of sorts:

Last week, about 20 technology executives from Viacom Inc., its Paramount movie studio and other Hollywood companies met at AT&T headquarters to start devising a technology that would stem piracy but not violate privacy laws or Internet freedoms espoused by the Federal Communications Commission.

Now that’s a misleading “but.” The current FCC’s position is that everything the Telecoms want to do is hunky dory from refusing to investigate illegal wiretapping to allowing the reconstitution of the nation’s largest telecom monopoly: AT&T. Really, the spectacle of AT&T getting pious over Hollywood’s piracy laws is really smoke and mirrors. After all AT&T has been totally uninterested in helping prevent piracy when piracy was a profit center for them–when it helped them sell broadband. What has changed is that AT&T has decided it wants to be in the good graces of the Hollywood moguls who control the video content the company will have to buy in order to offer cable-like IPTV. To wit:

As AT&T has begun selling pay-television services, the company has realized that its interests are more closely aligned with Hollywood, Cicconi said in an interview Tuesday. The company’s top leaders recently decided to help Hollywood protect the digital copyrights to that content.

Now people DO notice when this sort of shuffling is going on. Gigi Sohn of Public knowledge remarks:

“AT&T is going to act like the copyright police, and that is going to make customers angry,” she said. “The good news for AT&T is that there’s so little competition that where else are the customers going to go?”

Just for the record, not every corporation is a craven as AT&T:

Verizon Communications Inc., which has fiercely guarded the privacy of its customers, has refused so far to offer a network anti-piracy tool. It defeated in court the recording industry’s demands to reveal names of those allegedly involved in downloading pirated songs.

AT&T is wondering if they can’t use Hollywood to get them permission to call the current internet broken and allow the the sort of deep packet inspection and content provder surcharges that they’ve been after recently. That argument failed last year in Congress because it failed so badly with the internet-using public. The potential new plan is all too transparent: Perhaps the “only” way to “secure” copyrighted works would be to make sure they are only downloaded from the owners’ websites and to interdict all other copies. AT&T would deep packet inspect all of your little bits and bytes…and Google’s…and anyone else who didn’t pay the vigorish to get put on the “pre-approved” list. Their (paid for) downloads would be fast, yours and other’s (unpaid) would get the slow inspection. Imagine waiting in line while some dim-witted mechanized inspector paws through your stuff and asks you if you really own your underwear…while a select few zip past “pre-approved” by virtue of having paid of the private security guards–legally, of course. (Does this sound utterly unlikely and too unnatural to be a real possibility? If you think so you’ve not been watching the parallel madness over “Goodmail” with whom our local “friend in the digital age” Cox recently joined. If you pay Goodmail, which pays Cox, you can bypass Cox’s spam filters….this is presented as a “solution” to the spam problem!)

Such stuff should be illegal; it is an abuse of the ownership of a vital transport utility. In our history railroads, canals, and shipping lanes were not allowed to establish “favorites.” That was the essence of common carriage. We shouldn’t allow the current robber barons to change that.

The solution for individuals is to move your personal accounts to a small, reasonably priced provider who is more beholden to you than to large corporate accounts. I recently moved my and my wife’s email domains to a provider who allows me to turn off and on their spam filtering after overly aggressive filtering bounced legitimate emails sent from both regional Cox and BellSouth servers as spam. With my new provider people no longer complain that my server is bouncing their legitimate mail back to them. My new provider gives me complete control. Frankly, most folks don’t want to have to go that far to protect themselves; they’d rather they had a provider they could trust. Unfortunately, in most communities as in Lafayette, the incumbents have demonstrated that they are not worthy of that trust.

The solution for communities is to own your own last mile. It’s not just that you’ll get a better price. (Though you will.) It’s not just that you’ll get better tech. (Though you will.) It’s that you’ll get a system owner that you can trust, one that owes its first allegiance to you and not to the cash flow your subscription offers distant, self-interested owners.

That is why Lafayette made the right decision on July 16th two years ago when it voted to build and operate its own fiber-optic network.

“All our networks are belong to us.”

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