Is Content Filtering the New DRM?

There was a time when Internet service providers would not touch the idea of blocking or filtering content, particularly after the Stratton Oakmont decision in the U.S., which intimated that ISPs that got into the content monitoring business would face potential liability for legal issues arising from such content.  No longer.  Over the past two years, there has been growing concern about net neutrality issues including content blocking (Telus), application discrimination (Shaw on VoIP), traffic shaping (Rogers), and content delivery tariffs (Videotron).

Today's LA Times reports that AT&T is prepared to take the next step – full scale content filtering on behalf of Hollywood interests.  AT&T says that it is working with Hollywood studios and record companies to develop technologies to keep infringing content off their networks.  AT&T has moved into pay television services and says "its interests are more closely aligned with Hollywood."

Not only does this sound like a DRM-style pipe dream – content filtering replacing DRM as the mistaken "solution" to copyright concerns – but it raises enormous concerns about false positives that filter out legitimate content and privacy implications for customer monitoring.  Moreover, by moving down this path, AT&T faces the prospect of demands to monitor other content, aggressive legislative requirements to do so, and potential liability when things go wrong.  Rather than working on ways to respond to consumer demands, this is yet another step toward annoying the public and opening a pandora's box of legal concerns.


  1. A solution in search of a problem
    They’ve always claimed in the U.S that there was no problem, and that NN legislation was premature. I think it’s pretty clear that argument can finally be put firmly to rest.

  2. Will the MPAA get their own room at AT&T to monitor all users activities, or will they have to share one with the NSA?

  3. So once people start encrypting their traffic, will they be liable for it?

  4. The likely outcome will be an arms race – encryption and other workarounds. If ATT escalates by filtering anything that looks suspicious, the false positive rate would be very high. Dropping all encrypted traffic would not be a realistic option.

    In the worst case, legislatures could exempt ISPs from liability for overblocking (false positives, or anything they choose to interfere with), or make remedies for customers ineffective (liability caps, forced arbitration, difficult proof requirements, etc.).

    A legislative mandate to filter might even make ISPs sorry they initiated this, because the **Ass.’s of America would never be satisfied, there would be some sort of liability for underfiltering, and the burden on non-infringing customers would become severe.

  5. Garry Anderson says:

    I am British – but what right does AT&T have to invade an Americans privacy?

    Isn’t privacy protected in the Bill of Rights – or has that all gone out the window now, since 911?

    I thought that even the police have to get a judge to authorize a warrant to search – and only if there is reasonable grounds against an individual (not the populace of whole country).

    Why is this not like the US Postal Service looking in your mail or DHL opening your packages to see if you have anything illegal – without a search warrant?

  6. Lines
    AT&T owns and leases most of the network in the US don’t they? That could have far-reaching consequences.

  7. crackhead dave says:

    so, are they going to start blocking my Linux disk .iso’s because it *might* be a movie?
    what if i download a movie from a competing company, how will they know if i purchased it legitimately or i’m stealing it?
    what about streaming radio? it’s music isn’t it?
    this just sounds like a way to stop competition. little aol’s everywhere.

  8. Loyal Servent says:

    AT&T owns and leases most of the network in the US don’t they?

    AT&T owns these lines because the city’s funded them and allowed land to be taken make room for the lines. American consumers paid for the lines over the last 70 years. AT&T would be nothing without our money.

    I am ready to cancel my DSL because AT&T hates freedom. I hope Comcast keeps Al-queda angry at us by keeping the internet free from outside censorship.

  9. Backbone
    [AT&T owns and leases most of the network in the US don’t they? That could have far-reaching consequences]

    You hit the nail on the head. AT&T also operates an Internet backbone, so this could have huge ramifications for other countries.

    It’s one (pretty disgusting) thing for an ISP to enforce censorship by getting into bed with another business when it affects their own jurisdiction. But it’s quite another to have an effect on the entire globe.

    AT&T must die. Whitacre can go to.

  10. CIPPIC intern
    Is the application discrimination you mention in “Shaw on VOIP” a court or tribunal decision?

    I’m researching info on discrimination (in Canada) and am looking for as much relevant information on it as I can find. Any direction to appropriate resources is much appreciated.

  11. Not surprised at all
    Why am I not surprised about this? While you and I might feel AT&T\’s quickly becoming an arm of the U.S. Gov\’t, without any of those pesky elections getting in the way, the truth of the matter is that most people in America could care less. As long as they have their beer and NASCAR or their brokerage accounts and fine wines, what goes on behind the (lcd) \’screens\’ is immaterial to them. Look how hard it\’s been to get people talking about global warming / the environment. These majority of the American people have watched placidly while a greed-blighted corporatist administration has eradicated Habeas Corpus, allowed merger after merger of media conglomerates, openly admitted spying on everyone all the time, etc. Do you really think that Joe DSL-user is going to care about content-filtering online or packet-sniffing? As long as his web pages load quickly and he can play fantasy football, AT&T could announce they were going to block access to all other countries\’ TLDs and he still wouldn\’t care. It will take an ISP initiating a block on Ebay, Google, Yahoo, and Amazon before most subscribers even care. And that\’s exactly what AT&T\’s counting on–the ignorance of most consumers (and lack of choice in certain markets). I\’ve seen this personally. No matter how much information I put out there for some of my family, friends, and co-workers to see, I\’ve generally found that a)the less tech-savvy a person is, the less she cares about this; and b)the older a person is, the less she cares about these issues. Speaking of blocking Ebay and Google: Does this mean AT&T is going to filter search results or auctions offered by others? Say, for example, auctions selling mod-chips for game consoles or secondhand software (like Photoshop or similar, if the EULA prohibits transfer)? What about websites that simply provide information on how to play DVDs/MP3s in Linux or how to build a satellite \”black box\”? The implications are endless, of course. Next, they\’ll be blocking \”explicit\” content, legal or otherwise, at the behest of the \’morality mafia\’, or perhaps AT&T\’d rather post/publish a list of subscribers\’ names/addresses/phone numbers with a link to logs of everything those subscribers do/have done online. I\’m glad I no longer use Cingular wireless, and though I live in a locality where AT&T (formerly Bellsouth) offers telephone and internet service, I thankfully have the option to get said services through my cable company. Given the FTC/FCC/DoJ\’s complacency with media-communications companies merging, however, this could change at any moment.

  12. Bryan Seigneur says:

    IT Tech, SW Engineering student
    This is a very, very hard problem, filtering network traffic in such a subtle way. But I do not doubt great strides will be made toward the goal, even if the anti-piracy goal is not ever totally attainable.

    However, there are other uses of this technology. Red China would love to improve upon its network filtering technology to such an awesome extent. Perhaps AT&T should partner with the experts in Cisco Networking and others who have made China’s big-brother internet powers possible.

    At one point this technology will be so worked out that there will be very little technical hurdles to any government using it, only legal ones.

    It would be better to slow this development down now by enacting the legal barriers in the present.

    Network neutrality; not a solution in search of a problem.

  13. Bryan Seigneur says:

    The above post
    The form said \”Title\” not \”Subject\”, so I wrote my job title. It also is placed directly after \”Name\”, not before the body of the post.