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AT&T Has a Plan to Make Torrents Faster by Monitoring Its Users

And it raises serious privacy concerns.
February 19, 2015, 9:43pm

AT&T filed a patent for an internet 'fast lane' on Tuesday, which the company claims would reduce network congestion caused by file-sharing. But would it come at the cost of user privacy?

The patent, outlined in a document titled "System and Method to Guide Active Participation in Peer-to-Peer Systems with Passive Monitoring Environment" obtained by TorrentFreak, would involve passively monitoring peer-to-peer software, such as BitTorrent. The point, AT&T claims, is not surveillance, but to identify which files, be it movies or documents, users are uploading and downloading the most. That way, the company can cache high-demand files on AT&T servers and direct nearby users to those servers instead, freeing up network resources and speeding up transfers for all.

"It is estimated that P2P file sharing, such as BitTorrent, represents greater than 20 percent of all broadband traffic on the internet," the patent filing reads. "In an embodiment [of the system], providing the content from a server closer to the requesting peer systems can reduce network costs."

It sounds innocuous, even practical—but it also has the makings of a privacy nightmare. The system's function as described is to reduce congestion and speed up transfers, but it requires large-scale monitoring of P2P traffic, as well as content being shared.

AT&T did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment.

"Obviously we don't know all the details about this plan, or how AT&T plans to implement it," Josh Levy, advocacy director at digital rights group Access, wrote in an email. "But, from what we can see, presumably AT&T doesn't want to share copyright infringing material, yet it would be putting itself in a position in which it has to identify licensed or unlicensed material in order to seed peer-to-peer content. This raises serious privacy concerns. It means an [internet service provider] would be actively identifying both the users seeding unlicensed content, and consumers of that content, moving the ISP far away from being a neutral network provider."

The notion of a 'fast lane' for certain kinds of internet traffic isn't new ground for AT&T. The company has staunchly resisted the Federal Communications Commission's proposed net neutrality rules, which would prevent internet service providers from throttling internet speeds or boosting them for high-paying customers. AT&T has donated large sums to anti-net neutrality politicians such as Tennessee's Republican congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and opposed tax breaks for municipalities (affordances the company itself wants) seeking to build their own broadband networks.

But is this really an issue of net neutrality? According to Christian Averill, director of communications for BitTorrent, AT&T's plan actually makes sense—from a technical perspective, at least.

"At first look, it appears they are making improvements to their network to better handle traffic without adding cost," Averill said. "It doesn't sound like paid prioritization or traffic discrimination and this is actually a way for the Internet to work better. Hundreds of companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Blizzard, and Amazon already use the BitTorrent protocol the way it was intended to be used: to handle the heavy load."

Erik Stallman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Open Internet Project, agreed with Averill's assessment. "P2P is often the largest source of peak-time upstream traffic and may pose unique capacity challenges," he wrote in an email. "Depending on how it is implemented, shortening the trip that frequently requested content has to make to reach the user could be a reasonable means to avoid or mitigate network congestion."

It remains to be seen whether AT&T will actually implement their patented method for reducing the network strain brought on by torrenting and P2P file sharing, however. But if they do, it's likely to be less an issue of an open and equal internet, and more about the potential for surveillance on a massive scale.