AT&T's culture of control has taken a frightening new turn.
Some may remember when the company's black rotary phone was the only device allowed on its telephone network. Today, the communications giant is banking that a world without Net Neutrality will allow them to exert similar control over another network -- the free flowing Internet.
AT&T's slippery response to the resulting outcry is instructive.
Spinning Out of Control
The moment the Pearl Jam news hit the Web, AT&T's public relations division scrambled their spokespeople and shills. In a frenzy of damage control, they fired off a series of statements. One called the move "totally against our policy -- of never, ever censoring political speech." Another declared the Pearl Jam censorship "an isolated incident" -- an "unfortunate" mistake by a rogue subcontractor.
But it wasn't long before evidence came to light of more political censorship at the hands of AT&T -- involving earlier webcasts of bands like the Flaming Lips, John Butler Trio and others. (The list keeps growing)
AT&T redeployed its hacks with a "modified" public position:
"It's not our intent to edit political comments in webcasts," said AT&T spokeswoman Tiffany O'Brien Nels. "Unfortunately, it has happened in the past in a handful of cases. We have taken steps to insure that it will not happen again."
Then on Monday a crew member involved with AT&T's webcasts came forward, telling Wired News that he had been issued instructions to "shut it down if there was any swearing or if anybody starts getting political."
Sounds like a censorship policy to us.
So AT&T's shills shifted gears once again. AT&T screwed up for sure, they admit, but this censorship of political speech "has absolutely nothing to do with Net Neutrality. Nothing. Zero. Zilch."
Why should we take AT&T at their word?
Such spin needs to be held up to scrutiny. AT&T's past is checkered with stories of breaking trust with customers -- helping the NSA wiretap calls and handing over private phone records to the government, promising to deliver services to underserved communities and then skipping town, pledging never to interfere with the free flow of information online while hatching plans with the likes of Cisco, Viacom, RIAA and MPA to build and deploy technology that will spy on user traffic.
When faced with a simple Net Neutrality rule that would keep them honest, AT&T rails against the move as "a solution in search of a problem."
They pledge "never, ever" to interfere with the free flow of information online, while touting plans to become gatekeepers to the Web -- with content "shaping" technology and discriminatory business practices that would upend the level playing field that has made the Internet an engine of free speech and economic innovation.
AT&T is the 'Problem'
"This is precisely the behavior ... Net Neutrality advocates have been warning about for almost a decade," Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig wrote about the Pearl Jam incident. "And not just (or even most importantly) in this explicit form. Much more important are the games played more subtly, to push innovation and content in the direction that benefits AT&T."
Internet Service Providers "believe they have the absolute right to control the content/application on those lines," Lessig writes. If allowed to proliferate, this attitude "will be deadly for Internet innovation."
AT&T's censorship, whether a "mistake" or corporate policy, is a rallying point for the Internet freedom movement. The great promise of the Internet shouldn't be left in the hands of those who confuse telling the truth with spinning for political and economic gain.
But AT&T can still make good on its promise to "never, ever" censor the Web by backing off its multimillion-dollar campaign to kill Net Neutrality.
How about it?