Tim Wu’s fantastic piece on Slate, describing the inanity that is AT&T’s plans to try and filter all its internet traffic for copyrighted works. Wu lays out the various reasons why this is a bad idea, but I really like how he focuses primarily on why this would be bad business. AT&T is much more likely to respond to financial pressure than ethical if history is any guide.
AT&T’s new strategy reverses that position and exposes it to so much potential liability that adopting it would arguably violate AT&T’s fiduciary duty to its shareholders. Today, in its daily Internet operations, AT&T is shielded by a federal law that provides a powerful immunity to copyright infringement. The Bells know the law well: They wrote and pushed it through Congress in 1998, collectively spending six years and millions of dollars in lobbying fees to make sure there would be no liability for “Transitory Digital Network Communications”–content AT&T carries over the Internet. And that’s why the recording industry sued Napster and Grokster, not AT&T or Verizon, when the great music wars began in the early 2000s.
Here’s the kicker: To maintain that immunity, AT&T must transmit data “without selection of the material by the service provider” and “without modification of its content.” Once AT&T gets in the business of picking and choosing what content travels over its network, while the law is not entirely clear, it runs a serious risk of losing its all-important immunity. An Internet provider voluntarily giving up copyright immunity is like an astronaut on the moon taking off his space suit. As the world’s largest gatekeeper, AT&T would immediately become the world’s largest target for copyright infringement lawsuits.
Wu goes on to posit that AT&T might be mistaking itself for a media company. It’s certainly the first question I’ve asked of AT&T: which do you think has a longer, brighter future? Big media companies or users of the internet?
Has AT&T Lost Its Mind? [Slate]
Previously: Fair use for the 21st century: if it adds value, it’s fair; if it substitutes, it’s not [Boing Boing]