Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland,
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson confirmed that the telecom and internet giant is “very
interested” in a “technology based solution” to monitor data
passing through its networks for rogue peer-to-peer traffic.
“It’s like being in a store and watching someone steal a
DVD,” said Stephenson. “Do you act?”
Such a move would affect more than just AT&T’s
subscribers, as the company’s network investments represent a sizable chunk of the
internet’s backbone – which results in almost all Internet data passing through its network at some point. Given
that AT&T has, so far, been pensive about the scope of such a project, many
are assuming the worst.
More importantly, AT&T may forfeit its end of the deal
in what Slate’s Tim Wu calls “the
grand bargain of common carriage:” legal immunity from whatever claims might arise
from data its network transports, in exchange for offering network service to
anyone in a nondiscriminatory fashion. “AT&T's new strategy reverses that
position and exposes it to so much potential liability that adopting it would
arguably violate AT&T's fiduciary duty to its shareholders,” writes Wu.
In an absence of any official word on why AT&T wants to
implement such a project, many people think that the primary motivator is an
alarmed response to the growing percentage of traffic attributable to P2P
activity; various surveys claim that anywhere from 30 to 90
percent of all internet traffic is P2P related. Lately, ISPs both large and
small have been testing the waters with a variety of traffic-shaping
initiatives, including Comcast, which last year found
itself in the middle of a scandal over how
it handles BitTorrent traffic.
According to AT&T – as well as anecdotal reports and
commentary from other ISP employees – Internet users should expect a more
managed Internet experience in the near future, as technology is finally
becoming sophisticated enough to allow for such large-scale projects.
recognize we are not there yet but there are a lot of promising technologies,”
said AT&T executive James Cicconi, “but we are having an open discussion
with a number of content companies … to try to explore various technologies
that are out there.”
If anyone has the expertise to deploy such a large filtering
project, it would be AT&T: the company was already caught
red-handed with powerful data-mining hardware, which it used to gather information
on the nation’s web traffic for the NSA.
“The volume of peer-to-peer traffic online, dominated by
copyrighted materials, is overwhelming. That clearly should not be an
acceptable, continuing status,” said NBC Universal’s general counsel, Rick
Cotton. “The question is how we collectively collaborate to address this.”