Image: Joel Johnson, gadgets editor
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Gadgets editor Joel Johnson used his guest shot on AT&T Tech Channel’s “Hugh Thompson Show” to call attention to AT&T’s newly proposed (and very creepy) plan to filter user activity on the Internet.
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 1/25/2008 9:16:48 AM ET 2008-01-25T14:16:48

Joel Johnson, gadgets editor for the tech/science site boing boing, pulled a Harvey Pekar during his recent guest appearance on the online AT&T Tech Channel’s “Hugh Thompson Show.”

In 1988, Pekar, the “American Splendor” comic book writer, torpedoed his eighth (and final) appearance on NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman” by criticizing General Electric (NBC’s parent company), for manufacturing weapons.

Johnson, exhibiting a politeness foreign to the notoriously-cranky Pekar, nonetheless used his guest shot on Thompson’s show to call attention to AT&T’s newly proposed (and very creepy) plan to filter user activity on the Internet.

“Do you guys want AT&T to read your e-mails?” Johnson asked the Thompson audience, when he should’ve been talking about gadgets. “Do you want AT&T to like, open up your instant message conversation and look and see if you maybe said something that they didn’t like or maybe the government didn’t like? Yeah? No. I don’t think anybody wants that.” A chorus of “Noooos!” echoed from the audience before producers shut him down. 

Like Pekar’s final “Letterman,” the “Thompson” segment may never air. Johnson however, had the forethought to ask a colleague to video record his segment. He’s posted it on boing boing, along with a note describing the in-studio dust-up he caused and the importance of calling out AT&T. Go see it. You need to. This AT&T thing is a tiny story now, but it’s about to blow up huger and uglier than that Facebook’s Beacon mishagos. And it’s going to affect all of us.

AT&T’s big plan, which CEO Randall Stephenson shared this week at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, is to monitor traffic over its online network in what he claims is an effort to stamp out theft of copyrighted material. He failed to mention that such a plan is also unethical, impractical, insane, and given the CEO’s explanation, probably more than a little dishonest.

"It's like being in a store and watching someone steal a DVD," CEO Stephenson said in his announcement. “Do you act?" Um, well … no. Not most people. Not unless you’re Tom Cruise or the store security guard who’s paid to interact with criminals. Not that the comparison is relevant to the proposal. Most likely, it has little or nothing to do with petty theft. Riddle me that.

When a business entity decides to do something that seems just stupid, you've got to start looking for the angle you're missing. Internet filtering is a bad business move because, well, most of us value our privacy.

We’ve also grown pretty fond of the freedom to explore cyberspace at a speed faster than dial-up. Taking time to scan every e-mail or forwarded LOLcat is going to slow things down considerably. Scanning also runs the risk of blocking perfectly legal content, such as home videos mistaken as, say, “Cloverfield” bootlegs.

Lack of privacy plus a bad connection divided by blocked service equals dissatisfied customers. These customers then dump AT&T en masse, leaving dissatisfied stockholders in their wake. With stakes this high, it ain’t about shoplifting.

Most likely, the purloined DVD comparison is a poorly thought-out distraction from the actual goal — driving a wedge in Net Neutrality. That’s the principle that allows you to surf the Net freely, without Internet providers “speeding up or slowing down Web content based on its source, ownership or destination,” as explained on SaveTheInternet.com.

Without Net Neutrality, Internet providers such as AT&T, as well as Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon, can “discriminate in favor of their own search engines, Internet phone services, and streaming video while slowing down or blocking their competitors,” the activist site points out.

Think of it as an invisible fence preventing you from leaving the front yard, while locking out smaller Web sites who aren’t allowed to visit you on account of they can’t pony up the dues. You get a pretty good picture of why cable and phone company lobbyists are pushing to block Net Neutrality legislation.

As this story balloons over the coming weeks, perhaps AT&T’s true motivation will be revealed. Maybe it’s not about controlling the Internet. Maybe AT&T is using this as a pump-fake to get out of the iPhone contract with Apple. One thing's for sure. Someone at AT&T needs an intro course on the fundamentals of the practical side of business ethics.

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