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.