AT&T has said on any number occasions that it won't block or degrade Web sites. It has used that argument as a means of staving off legislation and regulation that would require the company, and other telecom companies, to play fair with content providers.
Not to get too technical here, but they didn't promise not to censor, did they? Let's add that little crime against speech to the list of reasons why Internet Freedom/Net Neutrality is a good idea.
It seems as if AT&T was the sponsor of the Webcast of a Pearl Jam concert at Lollapalooza on Saturday night (Aug. 4). Soon after the performance ended, the band started getting word from its fans that part of a song had been cut out. It turns out that the parts that were blocked were during the song, "Daughter," as the band had substituted some lyrics critical of President Bush.
Specifically, they sang, to the tune of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall," the words, "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush find yourself another home." The band explains it all here.
So how shall we interpret this? According to the band, the explanation from AT&T was to blame the censorship on their "content monitor." Blaming a junior staffer is the standard excuse when an organization, such as a political campaign, wants to avoid taking responsibility for a policy or action that leads to something bad or embarrassing, and so fobs the bad deed off on some junior person to take the fall.
The larger question is, why do they have a "content monitor?" This isn't TV, where the Federal Cussing Commission is looking over everyone's shoulder. There isn't a rule about what content can get streamed over the Internet, at least not yet.
AT&T is really getting into its role as content nanny in a big way. First, it starts monitoring all sorts of conversations for the National Security Agency. Then it promises to work with the movie studios and NBC to come up with some super software to tag copyrighted material that flows through its network, regardless of how that content is used. Now it puts "content monitors" on its Webcasts.
We must ask: This is the company that want to be left alone to run the Internet as it sees fit? The corporate officials of AT&T like to give speeches and to tell the FCC and Congress that they won't block people's access to content. They made that promise when they bought BellSouth for $80 billion last year. Former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre made it in a speech last March.
They protest too much. Despite the denials from Whitacre and others in the telecom industry, this incident is just one more count in the indictment. Millions of people all over the country have signed petitions and told the government that they don't want companies like AT&T to have control over what goes over the Internet. If you have to ask why, this is why.
As the band said on its Web page: "AT&T's actions strike at the heart of the public's concerns over the power that corporations have when it comes to determining what the public sees and hears through communications media."
Pearl Jam has had a lot of hits, but it couldn't write anything more striking than this: "What happened to us this weekend was a wake up call, and it's about something much bigger than the censorship of a rock band."
The band is right. It's about protecting free speech and a free Internet. It's about time the FCC and Congress danced to that tune.