Tim Wu’s Bafflement

Writing on the AT&T discussion of pirated material, Professor Tim Wu professes amazement:

No one knows exactly what AT&T is proposing to build. But if the company means what it says, we’re looking at the beginnings of a private police state. That may sound like hyperbole, but what else do you call a system designed to monitor millions of people’s Internet consumption? That’s not just Orwellian; that’s Orwell.

We’d like to help. Wu assumes, incorrectly I think, that AT&T would implement this plan by snooping traffic and separating legal from illegal packets on the network. This accounts for the fears he expresses about police states and Orwellian jack boots and that sort of thing.

But let’s suppose AT&T went about finding the pirated movies the same way downloaders do, at the source. They would check Mininova and Pirate’s Bay every day for top downloads, and the associated trackers would gladly give them a list of all the uploaders, because that’s what trackers do. From that information, all AT&T would have to do is match IP addresses with their customers and take appropriate action.

I’m not saying that AT&T should do this, simply that if they were to target pirated content they wouldn’t do it the way Wu imagines; snooping packets won’t work in the general case because they can be encrypted. But the whole purpose of a BitTorrent tracker is to point you to the source of the pirated stuff, so the information is just sitting there, ripe for the picking.

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