(click thumbnail)Apple’s iPhoneIf you’re like me, you’re probably sick of hearing about Apple’s iPhone. Yet, what’s missing from all the celebratory news coverage is the dark controversy brewing under the hood of the nation’s latest glamour phone.
The controversy involves a very real threat to “net neutrality.” It was spawned from a remarkable statement made by a top executive at AT&T, the telco that has exclusive network rights to the iPhone.
The executive, James W. Cicconi, revealed that AT&T would become the first Internet provider to monitor its networks for perceived misuse of copyright-protected films, television, music and other media.
This is a major policy shift, especially coming from the largest provider of both local and long distance services, wireless service, and DSL Internet access in the United States. Previously, network operators have remained neutral to the nature of the content delivered over their networks.
This scenario is a bit like Ma Bell listening in and shutting down a phone call if one of the parties uses an obscenity, or God forbid, plays part of a commercial recording to a friend over the line. Make no mistake about it; this is brave new territory for a telco.
Cicconi, a senior vice president at AT&T, told the Los Angeles Times that since his company is now moving into the pay-television business, its interests are now more closely aligned with those of Hollywood’s studios.
What was left unsaid was any concern that Cicconi might have for the privacy of AT&T’s customers.
To fully comprehend the implications of this development, a little history lesson is in order.
Remember late last year when AT&T, as a condition of allowing its $86 billion merger with BellSouth, promised the FCC that it would abide by “net neutrality” principles for a period of two years?
Network neutrality is the principle that all Internet users should be able to access any Web content they choose and use any applications they choose, without restrictions or limitations imposed by their network service provider. That means the operator of the network should have no preferred business relationships that favors certain Web sites.
My, oh my, how time flies—and along with it good intentions. AT&T’s move, under the guise of copyright protection, could serve to bypass net neutrality altogether. How? By blocking access through filters to Internet destinations throughout the world where AT&T and its partners deem the content to be illegal.
Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Media Access Project told Josh Silver, a writer for the Huffington Post and executive director of Free Press, a national, nonpartisan organization, that AT&T is creating a charade to mask its real intentions.
“This has no more to do with ‘stopping piracy’ than the NSA surveillance program under which AT&T spied on Americans was about ‘national security,’” Feld said. “This is about entrenched interests using the rhetoric of law enforcement to erode essential freedoms.”
Using filtering to block specific Web sites has a history of harming innocent victims. In 2003, the Center for Democracy and Tech-nology successfully overturned a Pennsylvania law that required ISPs to block overseas child pornography sites, partly on the grounds that the filtering included many third-party Web sites as collateral damage.
Feld noted that copyright holders already have numerous mechanisms available to them under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. “If they feel their rights are infringed by carriers, they can sue—as Viacom has sued YouTube,” he said.
However, as Silver also pointed out, AT&T’s plan to monitor its networks is not about piracy, but about controlling video programming and discriminating against content on the Web. “Remember how the big phone companies tried to dismiss net neutrality as a ‘solution in search of a problem?’ Well, here’s the problem,” he wrote.
So, exactly what does AT&T propose to do? That’s another part of the mystery since they are not saying. Cicconi said only that the telco had started working with studios and record companies to develop anti-piracy technology that would target the most frequent offenders.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital media rights group, called AT&T’s technology “pure vaporware,” noting that on the surface that the telco’s action might look reasonable “but problems arise once you start to ask hard questions about exactly what AT&T is up to.”
Whatever technology AT&T deploys, said the EFF, it is bound to be some type of filtering that haphazardly restricts legitimate, lawful traffic. “The AT&T Internet traffic cop appears poised to shoot first, and ask questions about the impact on your civil liberties and ability to access lawful content and applications later,” the EFF said in a statement.
A SECRET ROOM
As to Feld’s comment about the NSA, here’s a bit more history. Last year, the EFF filed a class-action suit against AT&T accusing the telecom giant of illegally helping the National Security Agency spy on millions of Americans. The government has argued the case could expose state secrets.
However, as the case progresses, documents have been released describing a secret, secure room in AT&T’s facilities that gave the NSA direct access to customers’ e-mails and other Internet communications.
“This is critical evidence supporting our claim that AT&T is cooperating with the NSA in the illegal dragnet surveillance of millions of ordinary Americans,” said Cindy Cohn, the EFF’s legal director. “This surveillance is under debate in Congress and across the nation, as well as in the courts.”
If all this sounds a bit like a spy thriller, add one more ingredient to the mix. James W. Cicconi, the AT&T executive who told the LA Times of AT&T’s plans, has a most interesting background. Again, we’ll quote directly from the Huffington Post:
“...consider that Cicconi is the same guy who was the assistant to James Baker in the Reagan Administration and staff secretary for Bush Sr. (and he sits on the board of his presidential library). While at SBC (former name of AT&T), he served on Dubya’s White House transition team—before handing thousands of Americans’ private phone records over to the Pentagon. And under his leadership, SBC/AT&T broke more communications laws and rules—and paid more FCC fines—than just about anybody.”
OK, what do we know and not know? That’s the problem with this picture—a big lack of information and clarity. Unfortunately, the situation is much too important to ignore when one takes into account the future of media.
All electronic media is migrating to the Internet. As these broadband networks expand capacity to embrace video delivery, it is a huge issue as to whether or not their owners are allowed to interfere with a subscriber’s use of or access to content on the network.
In my opinion, network owner/operators should not be allowed to control or limit content access in any way. If a company owns or controls a network, that company should have no financial interest whatsoever in the content delivered on that network. Period.
Allowing corporations to own or sell content on their own network opens a Pandora’s box of public policy issues. Unfortunately, the cat is already out of the bag. Where are the unbiased, unbought government regulators to set the rules?
Mr. Cicconi’s old boss, Ronald Reagan, used to say of the Soviets: “Trust, but verify.” Unfortunately, in today’s corporate war to control new media, trust is long ago out the window.
We’ll be extremely lucky if we can get objective oversight to “verify” that the media conglomerates are playing by the rules.
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