Reach Out and Hush Someone
AT&T’s Blue Room entertainment site provided a webcast of the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago in early August. Well, it aired most of the festival. Fans noted that the audio went silent for several anti-Bush lines sung by Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder. AT&T apologized, calling the incident a one-time mistake that violated its policies against political censorship, but then had to retract that statement when dedicated fans reported that AT&T had also muted numerous other artists’ political comments in Blue Room concert webcasts. Wired News reported that a crew member on the August 5 Lollapalooza Blue Room broadcast said, “I can definitively say that at a previous event where AT&T was covering the show, the instructions were to shut it down if there was any swearing or if anybody starts getting political.” (Tellingly, perhaps, the monitors seem to have done a better job with the political part of those instructions than the swearing part. The Future of Music Coalition found 20 instances of the F-word which weren’t muted in the Lollapalooza webcast.)
As AT&T shareholders, we sent a strong letter of concern calling on the company to make a full review of and public report on incidents of Blue Room censorship to help shareholders, consumers, regulators and legislators understand why this incident occurred, and to ensure the company can prevent similar incidents in the future. AT&T has promised us a formal response to this request, which we’re still awaiting as we go to press. We also shared our concerns about the issue with the Open Media and Information Companies Initiative (OPEN MIC), a media research and advocacy group that Trillium incubated for two years and which has now spun off as an independent project of the Tides Foundation. OPEN MIC issued a press release on the issue that gained traction across the blogosphere.
All this would be troubling enough, but AT&T has taken a lead role lobbying Congress and regulators to ensure it has greater powers as a gatekeeper of information flows across the internet. In a political compromise, the Federal Communications Condition imposed “net neutrality” restrictions on SBC and AT&T when they merged, temporarily preventing the new telecom giant from restricting or discriminating against content delivered by its networks. The FCC has also adopted general net neutrality principles that have been used to prevent phone companies offering internet service to block their customers from access to competing online phone services like Skype.
AT&T has lobbyied fiercely against net neutrality protections, arguing that it should have the right to charge big content providers a premium for their use of AT&T’s networks. In making this argument, they’ve always assured policymakers and the public that they would never interfere with content passing through their pipes. But AT&T censorship of Pearl Jam and other artists’ Blue Room webcasts raises troubling doubts about how AT&T might misuse its gatekeeping power. As a few real world examples of abuses of network control, a major Canadian telecom company Telus, blocked its customers from seeing a union website and other sites supporting its workers involved in a labor dispute. AOL blocked all emails that mentioned a website fighting the company’s proposed pay-per-email pricing plan. In both cases these blockages were brief, and the companies claimed they were mistakes, just as AT&T claimed its Pearl Jam censorship was a mistake. But as the internet plays an increasingly central role in our daily lives, the real mistake seems to be trusting companies as gatekeepers with the power to determine what we can read and see on the internet.