Why AT&T's Plans To Filter The Internet Will Only Do More Harm To AT&T (And Everyone Else)

from the not-a-good-idea dept

AT&T announced last summer that it was going to start filtering traffic for copyrighted content -- so we're still not entirely sure why many in the press seem to think it was something new when discussed at CES a few weeks ago. However, this new burst of attention has many more people pointing out all the reasons this is bad for AT&T itself. As we said, this seems to make no sense at all, unless it's some bizarre attempt to come up with an excuse to get rid of net neutrality. In that post, we noted that any filtering would likely open up additional liabilities for AT&T, potentially losing its safe harbors from being a service provider (safe harbors that AT&T itself spent a lot of effort lobbying to have put into the law). Tim Wu has a lot more detail on that aspect of this plan (which he calls "corporate seppuku"). However, there are many other problems for AT&T as well. For example, it won't take long for someone to accuse AT&T of violating wiretap laws, a charge which may be accurate. But the biggest point is that this won't even do what they hope it will do. It won't stop unauthorized transfers from happening and it won't reduce network traffic. As we've discussed in the past, every move to do this kind of filtering will only drive up the market for encryption technologies, and that encryption actually adds more overhead to internet traffic. The PC World article linked above notes that 20% of all bittorrent traffic is encrypted, and if that number goes up, as it will under a filtering regime, the network load will only increase. So, if AT&T actually thinks (as it sometimes claims) that filtering will decrease the burden on the network, it's likely very mistaken.

Filed Under: encryption, filtering, liability, network neutrality
Companies: at&t


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  1. identicon
    Rekrul, 23 Jan 2008 @ 10:23pm

    Assuming AT&T doesn't come to its senses and drop this plan (ok, you can all stop laughing now), here's how this will play out;

    They will spend millions to develope and deploy hardware that will inspect and filter packets based on digital signatures provided to them by RIAA/MPAA. When they turn it on, users will start seeing mysterious failures when they try to download copyrighted material. (I'm aware that not everything copyrighted is illegal to download, I just want to avoid writing "works whose copyrights are held by large corporations" each and every time, ok?)

    They will complain to their ISP who will claim that there is nothing wrong, that the problem must elsewhere, etc. They will then go to various forums on the net looking for someone who can actually help. Rumors and speculation will run rampant for a while. Sites such as this one will pick up the story and finally some experts will conduct detailed tests to see what's happening, just as with Comcast and Bittorrent.

    When the news officially breaks that AT&T is indeed filtering packets passing through their network, people will start trying to come up with ways around it. The simplest method will be to compress files with an archiver like Zip or Rar, thereby changing them enough to avoid detection. RIAA/MPAA will provide updated signatures that include the compressed versions. People will then re-compress them using a different program, or a different compression level. RIAA/MPAA will counter this by providing even more signatures. In the end, the filtering machanism will be scanning for dozens of different signatures per file, degrading network performance.

    When it becomes clear that the content comapanies will just keep updating the signatures to cover every possible variation of a file, the authors of the P2P clients will add public-key encryption. If not the original authors, someone will make a "mod" that does it. People will begin using encryption. At first, only a few people will use it, but over time, it will become standard so that all P2P traffic is encrypted.

    End result: Millions spent, network performance degraded, customers angered, company opened to legal liabilities, piracy thriving as much as before.

    How is such filtering even supposed to work?

    There are thousands if not millions of copyrighted works floating around the net. Every encode of a particular work will have a slightly different signature. Not to mention archived files, encrypted files (versus encryption provided by the client) and so on. Each packet would have to be tested against potentially millions of signatures. Not to mention that to get the signatures for "ripped" copies, those copies would have to already be in circulation for the content creators to scan them.

    If they go through with this plan, I'll cancel my service with them in a heartbeat, including my regular phone service. While I'm aware that AT&T owns a sizeable portion of the net and every other ISP would be affected by this, at least I won't be helping to finance it.

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