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AT&T's pirate patrol

Its plan to team up with Hollywood and battle online bootleggers may trap consumers in the crossfire.

June 23, 2007

INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDERS monitor their networks to guard customers against spam and viruses. What if they also monitored customers to guard Hollywood against pirates?

That's what AT&T, a leading provider of high-speed Internet connections for homes and businesses, recently said it hopes to do in tandem with the major motion-picture studios. Studio executives say their goal is to detect and stop the most active bootleggers -- for example, those who run private sites online to distribute pirated movies.

Discussions are just beginning, and it's not clear what techniques AT&T might use. The company's announcement last week drew a skeptical response from some anti-piracy experts, who said the effort faced insurmountable technical and public-relations challenges. On the other hand, the proposal was endorsed by executives at several high-tech firms that are developing ways to identify copyrighted songs and videos as they pass through the Net.

It's easy to see why AT&T would be interested in addressing the studios' online piracy problem. The company needs Hollywood movies and TV programming for its new video service, which competes with cable TV. At the same time, illegal downloading consumes a large amount of the bandwidth on AT&T's networks, making it harder for the company's Internet services to deliver on the promises they make.

Users of the AT&T networks benefit too from having a competitive alternative to cable TV and broadband lines not clogged by illegal file-sharing. But AT&T needs to remember who's paying the bills: its subscribers, not Hollywood. Those subscribers shouldn't be subject to pervasive surveillance just because AT&T wants to improve its relationship with the studios. Nor should Hollywood be given free rein to stop transmissions if there's a dispute over whether its copyrights have been violated.

More important, pirates adapt quickly to new enforcement techniques. Just look at what happened when the courts started cracking down on the original Napster file-sharing network: Millions of users quickly shifted to another generation of file-sharing programs. AT&T may start with non-intrusive approaches, but as soon as pirates find a way to evade them, the company will come under intense pressure to broaden the monitoring.

So while it makes sense for AT&T and other Internet providers to talk to Hollywood about how they might employ the latest anti-piracy technologies, they shouldn't underestimate the difficulty of the problem they're trying to solve. The risk is that pirates may always stay one step ahead, and only legitimate users and services would be hindered by the new controls.

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