Blown To Bits

AT&T Broadband Customers: You Are Being Watched

Friday, March 27th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

AT&T has announced that it is teaming up with the Recording Industries Association of America to fight illegal music downloading. Subscribers to AT&T Internet service will have their traffic monitored, and will receive warning letters if their activities are suspicious. This is the other shoe dropping after the RIAA’s announcement in December 2008 that it would no longer go after individual downloaders (mainly young, music-loving individuals) with draconian threats. It’s the roll-out of a plan that has long been expected: the RIAA, unable to staunch the leakage of bits by using legal methods to punish the guilty or educational methods to persuade the population at large, has instead persuaded a private corporation to presume all of its customers guilty and worthy of unwarranted surveillance. The only surprise, perhaps, is that a major ISP is leading the way.

Bad as the RIAA’s previous system of extortion letters was, this is, in its way, even worse. The odds were heavily stacked against anyone alleged to have downloaded a song illegally, and the private police force the RIAA hired was beyond the scrutiny of the people it was policing. But at least there was some reason to believe that someone had downloaded something before the demand letter went out. The RIAA might get wrong who and what, but the letters were, presumably, triggered by actual events.

Not so with the new program. Now, apparently, all customers will watched all the time. It is as though the RIAA had worked out a deal with FedEx to open all packages looking for compact disks, and to send a warning letter if you seemed to be receiving too many of them.

[AT&T executive Jim] Cicconi told attendees of the Leadership Music Digital Summit that the notices, which are sent via e-mail, are part of a “trial.” AT&T wants to test customer reaction, he said.

I hope any AT&T customers out there will freely offer AT&T their reactions, and I hope those reactions are furious. Surveillance is not OK and no one should put up with it.

There seems to be some confusion on the part of the various spokespeople about what AT&T may or may not do about terminating accounts. Of course they don’t want to drive business to other ISPs — but many locations do not have competing ISPs in the first place.

In any case, the fundamental problem is that broadband services should be treated as common carriers. The fact that the ISPs own the “wires” should not give them the right to pick and choose who uses the wires, on the basis of private surveillance and unproven allegations. They can’t legally do it on their long distance lines, and they shouldn’t be able to do it on their Internet service either.

Comments are closed.