In a thoroughly enjoyable Slate piece last week Tim Wu, law professor extraordinaire, asked the only question a reasonable soul can muster after hearing about AT&T's unnecessary, infeasible, legally dubious, and most likely financially calamitous attempt to stem copyright infringement in the United States by closely scrutinizing the traffic that passes over its Internet lines: Has AT&T "simply lost its mind?"
Yesterday we got something of an answer: AT&T may not yet have lost its mind, but keep the doctors on speed dial because things aren't looking good.
I issue this diagnosis on the basis of a few mindless comments the company's CEO, Randall Stephenson, uttered in the presence of fellow bigwigs at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland yesterday.
Stephenson said that he had not yet decided to filter traffic on AT&T's lines, but suggested he was seriously considering doing so because a great deal of peer-to-peer file-sharing data on the Internet was illegal -- and, therefore, AT&T had a duty to stop it.
Here's how he put it: "It's like being in a store and watching someone steal a DVD. Do you act?" Stephenson asked.
So there you have it, AT&T's picture of digital communications circa 2008: The Internet is one big movie shop, any one of us is capable of stealing Hollywood's precious moving images, and only AT&T can stop the madness -- and only by searching our bags.
The way Stephenson puts it the plan sounds maybe 5 percent reasonable: Hey, look, it's AT&T, the friendly video store security guard! (OK, it's not the Pillsbury Doughboy, but a clever brand marketer could probably make it work.)
But Stephenson's plan is not even that little bit reasonable: What AT&T is considering, let's never forget, is basically the antithesis of the very idea of the Internet. The Internet -- as a matter of network engineering, first, and later telecommunications law -- was designed for network carriers to simply transmit information from one end to another, without interfering with that traffic along the way.
Now AT&T, one of the world's largest broadband carriers, wants to alter that design; it wants to be able to monitor -- and not simply transmit -- information that comes over its lines.
As Wu points out, this is not only technically complex -- "Imagine if FedEx were forced to examine every parcel for drug paraphernalia," he offers as a useful analogy -- but also puts AT&T in a dodgy legal position.
At the moment, because it allows all traffic to pass over its lines freely, AT&T cannot be held liable for what people do on its network. But if AT&T were to start to filter its network, it could very well be held legally accountable for what happens there. Why would the company put itself in this position?
Because it believes the Internet is overrun by thieves and only by placing itself at grave risk will it be able to save the day? There is a label for such delusion: Sheer insanity.