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AT&T the Web Spy? -- And Their Big Google Lie
From: David Farber <dave () farber net>
Date: Fri, 15 Aug 2008 03:16:57 -0400

Begin forwarded message:

From: Lauren Weinstein <lauren () vortex com>
Date: August 14, 2008 6:28:16 PM EDT
To: dave () farber net
Cc: lauren () vortex com
Subject: AT&T the Web Spy? -- And Their Big Google Lie

               AT&T the Web Spy? -- And Their Big Google Lie


Greetings.  The battle lines in the broader war over "network
neutrality" are becoming ever more clear, and from the standpoint of
some ISPs it increasingly appears that the (seemingly coordinated)
strategy of the moment is a "But Google is Worse!" defense -- and
offense.  Truthfulness matters not to these ISPs in this battle, and
in a manner reminiscent of the "Obama is a Muslim!" Big Lie, our
friends at AT&T have trotted out their own anti-Google lie in an
attempt to sway public opinion and the Federal Communications

The context today is various filings with the FCC associated with
their Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) inquiries.  Within these
documents we learn that AT&T has been enthusiastically exploring the
possibility of "opt-in" spying on their subscribers' entire Web
surfing data stream
( http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/att-wants-to-watch-you-read-ads ).

This revelation yields a plethora of speculative questions.  How
would such affirmative opt-in permission be obtained (and
withdrawn)?  What happens to the data collected?  Will subscribers
be "coerced" into granting permission, perhaps by lower prices and
higher bandwidth caps?  And is there any reason for us to
*trust* AT&T regarding such matters in the first place,
particularly in light of their past history?

AT&T's new Big Lie regarding Google is of particular note:

 "Advertising network operators such as Google have evolved beyond
  merely tracking consumer Web surfing activity on sites for which
  they have a direct ad-serving relationship. They now have the
  ability to observe a user's entire Web browsing experience at a
  granular level."
     -- Dorothy Attwood, AT&T senior vice president for public policy

That second sentence is the kicker -- and is simply untrue.  But
it's crucial to AT&T's arguments that people *believe* it to be

Google does collect a great deal of data across their affiliated
networks, via IP addresses, cookies (when enabled by users), and
presumably URL referers as well.  But this only includes sites
somehow affiliated with the Google networks, and/or users who have
installed various Google tools and enabled associated site reporting
features.  But it does *not* otherwise include all visited Web
sites.  Not by a long shot.

Yet however much dispersed data Google collects in this manner, it
still pales in comparison to the 100% of subscribers' unencrypted
data directly available to ISPs via DPI, and the immense leverage
ISPs have over their customers' total Internet access experience --
with bandwidth caps looming as yet another tool in the ISPs'
anti-competitive arsenal.

In fact, ISPs are the only entity with "the ability to observe a
user's entire Web browsing experience at a granular level."

And there's another factor too -- more of a gut feeling than a
technical analysis.  Do I have any issues with some of Google's data
collection and related privacy practices?  Sure, that's not a
secret.  But I've been encouraged by Google's continuing evolution
in this area, and in particular by their willingness not to simply
roll over in the face of outrageous demands for access to customer

I realize that all corporations must obey the law, that financial
considerations can always put privacy concerns at risk, and that all
sorts of other complex factors enter into these situations.  But all
else being equal, I simply am more willing to trust my data to
Google's current management philosophy than I am to the "Yes Sir,
whatever you say, Sir! sensibilities of AT&T when it comes to
outsiders wanting to pry into their subscribers' communications.

I used to know quite a few great people at AT&T, especially at Bell
Labs in its heyday.  Perhaps it's something of a metaphor for where
we are now that most of those brilliant individuals have been driven
away from AT&T -- and in more than one case they're now at -- Google!

The large ISPs want to remake the Internet in their own image.  They
see today -- right now -- as the best possible time to take total
and complete ownership of Internet users and all associated data.
They wish to make sure that the ISPs' positions as gatekeepers to
the entire Internet in every respect are firmly entrenched within
the oligarchy of the existing U.S. Internet access landscape.

To help ensure outcomes favorable to these goals, it seems that some
ISPs are willing to say or do just about anything, be it saddling
their subscribers with unreasonable Terms of Service, implementing
oppressive operational limitations and bandwidth caps, and in the
case of AT&T, issuing distortions and lies about Google as well.

Shame on you, Ma Bell.

Lauren Weinstein
lauren () vortex com or lauren () pfir org
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
Co-Founder, PFIR
  - People For Internet Responsibility - http://www.pfir.org
Co-Founder, NNSquad
  - Network Neutrality Squad - http://www.nnsquad.org
Founder, PRIVACY Forum - http://www.vortex.com
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com

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