Just about a week ago, Pearl Jam was playing the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago. The concert was webcast by AT&T as part of its “Blue Room” series. At one point in the performance, Eddie Vedder and the band started vamping on the old Pink Floyd tune, “Another Brick In The Wall.”
Vedder sang, instead of the usual chorus, the words, “George Bush leave this world alone.” He started to sing it again, and the sound stopped. The webcast was silent through the end of the song as Vedder sang, “George Bush find yourself another home.”
The band started hearing from their fans that part of the song had been silenced. When they confirmed what had happened, they alertly and accurately posting their view of what happened on their Web site, taking note of the censorship and discussing the incident in terms of media control and Internet Freedom.
They said, in part: “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.
“Aspects of censorship, consolidation, and preferential treatment of the internet are now being debated under the umbrella of “NetNeutrality.” Check out The Future of Music or Save the Internet for more information on this issue.”
The band is quite right. Unfortunately, some don't see it the same way, and the counter-attacks and reverse spin have begun. AT&T published an apology on its Blue Room Web site and a spokesman called it a “major mistake” that won't happen again because AT&T has a policy against censorship. There are reports, unconfirmed at the moment, that similar occurrences have happened before, during concerts in which performers were critical of President Bush.
Mark Sullivan at PC World, said in his blog that the incident had nothing to do with Net Neutrality because AT&T was censoring its own Web site, not that of another provider. Sullivan said: “Seems like the Net Neutrality crowd will use just about anything as a football for their cause. But by using poor examples of alleged violations, they're probably just confusing the Network Neutrality issue even more than it already is.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a rather weak Net Neutrality policy. But even in that, the Commission said consumers “are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.” That's a fairly broad statement, to be sure, and its original intent was to assure the public that the Commission would take a dim view of the most obvious violations of Internet Freedom – actually blocking a Web site. On the other hand, as long as the Commission wants to deal in the realm of the broadly defined principles, it sure seems as if there's a reasonable interpretation against censorship somewhere in that language.
Even if, and it's a big if, one doesn't consider the Pearl Jam incident Net Neutrality in the strictest sense, the larger picture holds without any need for interpretation. That is the reference to AT&T's self-anointed power to be the Internet censor of choice. If this were an isolated incident, perhaps it could be dismissed easily. But it is not. It is part of a mindset that ranges from high-ranking officials of the company viewing the Internet as their network to control – whether the control is the ability to disadvantage some companies over others, or to act on behalf of powerful companies to police for alleged copyright violations while violating the privacy of millions of users by sniffing the packets of millions of messages.
I don't mean to pick on Sullivan, but he and those who agree with him are flat wrong when they think that “the Vedder incident confuses net neutrality with censorship in the minds of voters, which doesn't bode well for future passage of Net Neutrality legislation.” The two topics are more like than we might wish to acknowledge. They each involve the mindset of a company, or companies, that want more control over what we see and hear than that to which they are entitled.
The case in favor of Internet freedom is being constructed voice by voice, argument by argument. To the extent that Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder are helping to build the case, their public outcry against what happened to their concert is a valuable brick in the wall.