Chances are that as you read this article, it is passing over part of AT&T’s network. That matters, because last week AT&T announced that it is seriously considering plans to examine all the traffic it carries for potential violations of U.S. intellectual property laws. The prospect of AT&T, already accused of spying on our telephone calls, now scanning every e-mail and download for outlawed content is way too totalitarian for my tastes. But the bizarre twist is that the proposal is such a bad idea that it would be not just a disservice to the public but probably a disaster for AT&T itself. If I were a shareholder, I’d want to know one thing: Has AT&T, after 122 years in business, simply lost its mind?
[…] [T]he most serious problems for AT&T may be legal. Since the beginnings of the phone system, carriers have always wanted to avoid liability for what happens on their lines, be it a bank robbery or someone’s divorce. Hence the grand bargain of common carriage: The Bell company carried all conversations equally, and in exchange bore no liability for what people used the phone for. Fair deal.
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.[…]
[…] Here’s the kicker: To maintain that [“Transitory Digital Network Communications”] 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.
See also Should AT&T police the Internet?