ISP packet filtering

Lately, there has been a minor hub-bub about AT&T testing packet filtering software to check for and delete illegally transfer copyrighted material. Privacy advocates complain that AT&T could become the police force of the Internet. Because there are a number of complex issues involved, I thought it would be interesting to unravel the issues the best I can.

First off, AT&T is a private company that no longer maintains a virtual monopoly on the market. It never held a complete monopoly on local distance, even if it did on long distance. In 1984, AT&T lost the legal protection in the long distance market. With the expanding use of cell phones and IP phones to make long distance calls, AT&T's position is much more vulnerable. Why does AT&Ts legal status matter? It matters because it is now a privately entity offering a service to customers. Customers unhappy with the service are free to shop elsewhere. There are many competing Internet service providers, each with similar options and services. No one is forced to use AT&T, so why should we care if AT&T decides to filter the packets on the cables they own.

The argument that AT&T should not involve themselves in filtering packets because of privacy concerns is rather silly. If you are hiring someone else to send messages, as long as there is full disclosure that you cannot expect privacy in the message, then you except the responsibilities for doing so. The idea that the Internet is somehow in the "public" domain and free from such snooping can only be summarized as a form of anarchism. Such advocates argue that "Don't you dare stop me from doing whatever I darn well please, regardless of who's rights I'm violating." That should doesn't hold water.

AT&T's effort to reduce illegal transfer of copyrighted material should be commended, especially if it ultimately drives that practice to a halt. Audio and video files are generally enormous in size, consuming large bandwidths to transmit it. Reducing illegal transfers will ultimately increase bandwidth for legitimate purposes.

There is one real danger that ISPs, including AT&T, should be aware of.
Critics also say AT&T's moves could put it and other ISPs in a precarious legal situation by not only admitting that it can filter traffic, but also indicating that it has a responsibility to do so.
Especially the way our legal system works today, many laws and court decisions place the responsibility of police work on businesses. Quite unfairly, I might add. Just because a business possess the capabilities to reduce crime, does not necessitate that they should or can. Why should a business be required to pay for crime enforcement? It ultimately makes the business service more expensive, thereby hurting both business owners and consumers.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act grants ISPs immunity from transmitting copyrighted materials. But it is a law that can be changed.

Again, the problem lies with the underlying philosophic premises governing our culture. Until those are changed, AT&T and everyone else will be at the mercy of politicians that are no friends to liberty.


  1. hey John its dave brown from indecon. i was googleing about indecon and came across your blog; i realiezed i dont have your email adress. drop me a line sometime. adbrown1@lakeheadu.ca

  2. Pekka Lehtikoski5:11 PM

    I think that law enforcement belongs to police, not to corporations, etc. For example if my mail man would read trough my mail because the US postal service would like to know if I am doing something illegal, I would be somewhat upset. Same thing if AT&T is listening in for my phone calls. This attempt of set of corporations to ignore privacy laws and take law into their own hands is at least questionable. If police doesn't have sufficient resources to deal with illegal internet use, we as voters should grant those trough political system.
    There is also practical aspect. The packet filtering software cannot separate my leagal use of peer to peer communication from illegal use of some other persons.

    Besr regards,
    Pekka Lehtikoski

  3. Pekka,
    Thank you for your comment. If I were to reword your argument, it would be that AT&T may not control the content traveling over their service, no matter what. If AT&T offers a service, they may not put any conditions on that service. If AT&T offers their property (the telephone lines) for others to use, AT&T may not limit that usage, but must make it available for all for any purpose, even if those purposes disrupt the service of other people using that service.

    That just isn't tenable.

    Perhaps you say this because of some mistaken assumptions about our legal system. First, the right to privacy, as the law currently stands, only applies to our government, not to corporations. So AT&T is not ignoring privacy laws...they simply do not apply. Second, AT&T is not taking the law into their own hands, they are taking their property into their own hands and merely excluding certain service (not prosecuting, convicting, or punishing offenders).

    From the practical complaint you have, consider placing your anger and frustration with those violating others rights...those illegally copying files that are copyrighted.

  4. Pekka Lehtikoski6:08 PM

    Thank you for your reply. I can see your point. My knowledge of law is weak, and I look at the matter from quite selfish perspective: First priority is that my communications do work without disruption, my job relies on this. Even I would like to see copyright holders paid, this is of secondary importance to me. The practical issue was resolved, for now, by switching DSL from AT&T to Atlantic Nexus.

    Best regards,
    Pekka Lehtikoski