AT&T and Hollywood’s crosshairs close-in on common threat

The LA Times is reporting that AT&T and Hollywood are getting together to take a bite out of piracy.

AT&T's reason for this new-found partnership comes from the realization that it distributes Hollywood's content when it sells its Uverse TV service. James W. Cicconi, an AT&T senior vice president is quoted in the article as saying: "We do recognize that a lot of our future business depends on exciting and interesting content." Piracy competes with that new revenue stream, so AT&T had better take an active role in protecting Hollywood's content.

Fred from EFF and Gigi are quoted in the article as well, raising two different points. Fred's is that fighting piracy with the wack-a-mole approach is futile and efforts would be better spent developing ways to monetize the file-trading activity. Gigi's point is that because of a lack of competition in the market for broadband, AT&T customers dissatisfied with this new anti-piracy campaign may find it very difficult to vote with their feet and subscribe to a new service.

The article doesn't specify exactly what methodology AT&T plans to employ, whether it adopts the Verizon/Disney agreement to pass along the infringement notices, spying on everything its customers with their Internet connection (oh wait, they allegedly already do that), employ ineffective filtering technologies, or something more "innovative."

This is the part of the post where you might start hearing black helicopters circling above, but the links aren't that difficult to see. Understanding the crux of Cicconi's quote is, I believe, critical here: "a lot of our future business depends on...content." AT&T's first perceived threat to their new revenue stream--content delivery--was legitimate video services delivered over the Internet. That is what the net neutrality debate is all about. Having to agree to no funny-business to get its merger approved, it's stayed clear of blocking or degrading competitors of its Uverse TV service. We knew the piracy shoe would drop in this net neutrality debate, but I didn't anticipate it being so soon--there is more afoot here than doing good by Hollywood.

The "fighting-piracy" meme is a safe one for AT&T to adopt in front of regulators, but it's a wolf in sheep's clothing. Regulators may not be down with AT&T blocking and degrading, but "filtering" in the name of content protection feels different to them.

Is it a coincidence that the one content provider listed in the article is Viacom--you know, the same big media company that is suing YouTube for $1B for copyright infringement? Youtube/Google of course is the company that AT&T's now retired CEO Edward E. Whitacre Jr, was tired of providing a "free lunch" by delivering Google's video packets over AT&T's pipes. The article says this new alliance is targeting "the most frequent offenders," does YouTube fall into that category? From Viacom's perspective, YouTube is The No. 1 Offender; considering AT&T's lack of love for YouTube/Google already, is it a stretch to see AT&T blocking YouTube in the name of piracy?

Of course, there would be rioting in the streets. That's when we come back to Gigi's comment--of few choices for broadband service. If customers riot and decide to switch to another broadband provider--does the broadband market give them the choice? For much of the US, the answer is no.

Whether you buy into this conspiracy theory or not, it's increasingly more difficult to deny that these "who controls the gateway" issues of net neutrality, open access, media concentration, and legitimate use of content are all intertwined. Ensuring unfettered access to the open Internet and new business models to ensure creators get paid for consumed content are both critical to the sharing of ideas, democracy, and our economy.

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