AT&T, Viacom to Jointly Deploy Anti-piracy Technology

During a seminar at the Digital Hollywood conference in Los Angeles this morning, AT&T Senior Vice President James Cicconi disclosed that his company began meeting with Viacom last week to discuss the deployment of technology that somehow will combat the spread of piracy over its digital networks, the Los Angeles Times revealed this afternoon.

Transcripts from the seminar have not yet been made available, and the Times account of the talk was vague on detail. From what we know at present, it isn't even clear whether AT&T's new anti-piracy technology would be limited to just the Internet, or would extend to its own private digital fiberoptic lines as well.

However, the article did say that AT&T and Viacom would work together to choose the technology - which typically means, they're not developing it but looking to buy it off the shelf. After that choice was made, the companies would study the legal issues surrounding using it, which is also the typical order of business.

The very fact that Cicconi's announcement was as vague as it was, may have been a mistake if the company had intended to repel at least some of the swarm of outrage from advocacy groups. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, released a statement just yesterday painting AT&T in the old, familiar vein as the overlord of telecommunications, accusing the company of secretly conspiring with the US National Security Agency to help them glean information about the customers of its network.

With the fire already burning, Cicconi's speech may have poured some extra kerosene on it, by lending information (if not credence) to the notion that the company would also pass on some of that national security-related data to the recording and movie industries along the way, extending the anti-terrorism fire to engulf the anti-piracy effort as well.

Comments from the DC-based advocacy group Public Knowledge were in such high demand this afternoon that the Web site was knocked off line for a time. However, its active RSS feed quotes its president, Gigi B. Sohn, as having responded, "We hope AT&T recognizes the difficulty of what it is trying to do. By attempting to act as the copyright police, the company is going to make its customers angry, even in a market in which customers have little choice of providers for high-speed Internet service. The technical challenges to the proper finding and taking down of copyrighted material are substantial."

Another statement from Sohn cited elsewhere warns AT&T of the dangers that may arise when its chosen technology works, and when it doesn't work. When it doesn't work, inevitably, customers will cry foul and the "false positives" will make waves in the press. When it does work, customers who discover their private communications were penetrated in the name of piracy protection will cry foul, and the resulting lawsuits will make waves in the press.

On the other hand, if AT&T took a stand in favor of customers' rights, it could find itself barraged by lawsuits similar to those Verizon faced from the recording industry. In late 2003, after a long battle with the RIAA, Verizon eventually won its right not to turn over the name of a customer suspected of piracy. Leading the Appeals Court at that time was then-Judge, now US Chief Justice, John Roberts, who grilled the recording industry's lawyers, asking, "Isn't [file sharing the] equivalent to my leaving the door to my library open? Somebody could come in and copy my books but that doesn't mean I'm liable for copyright infringement." Later, Judge Roberts directed to one RIAA attorney, "You make a lot of money off piracy."

The Appellate Court's decision in favor of Verizon was equally scathing: "We are not unsympathetic either to the RIAA's concern regarding the widespread infringement of its members' copyrights, or to the need for legal tools to protect those rights. It is not the province of the courts, however, to rewrite (copyright law) in order to make it fit a new and unforeseen Internet architecture, no matter how damaging that development has been to the music industry."

If AT&T had wanted to take a similar stand, it might have found the high end of the law on its side. But with an interest in quickly establishing a leading fiberoptic TV service to compete with cable, the company may have found itself having to appease content providers whose promotions and licensing arrangements could make or break its efforts in that market space.

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