When Neil Young agreed to play with the Crosby, Stills and Nash super-group at Woodstock, he made clear that he did not want to be in the Woodstock movie that was being filmed. Young felt that the performing musicians could be distracted by the cameras, the implicit commercialization of which would pollute or inhibit their free artistic expression, man. These days, it is unlikely to have super-rockers—even those as socially conscious as Pearl Jam or Rage Against the Machine—ever play a show without being on film.
Though Neil Young worried that artists would sell-out or censor themselves, it has become apparent that current performing artists run the risk of being politically censored by the filmmakers themselves. Or the companies delivering that video, that is.
At a Lollapalooza show in Chicago earlier this month, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder exercised his creative political license in a performance of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” He inserted the lyrics, “George Bush! Leave this world alone!” and “George Bush! Find yourself another home!” On AT&T’s live music streaming website, Blue Room, fans discovered that those lines had been edited out.
Marc Gunther, an internet watchdog of large coorporations, characterized the back-pedaling of AT&T:
AT&T first tried to duck responsibility. They attributed the editing to a “subcontractor” and said “this was not a censorship issue—it was a mistake that is completely against our policy.”
The company also said that the content monitor who removed the anti-Bush comments was there only to deal with profanity—until a group called the Future of Music Coalition pointed out that at least 20 incidents of profanity were not edited from the webcast.
Later, AT&T told Variety that “It’s not our intent to edit political comments in webcasts…unfortunately it has happened in the past in the handful of cases.” Gee, if it’s not their intent, why has it happened? Can’t they run their our website?
Well, the blogosphere has gone nuts over this. Some people checked out the campaign contributions of AT&T’s chairman Randall Stephenson and found he was a big supporter of President Bush….
Marguerite Reardon at News.com went deeper into the past ”handful of cases” that I’ve emphasized.
But then Wired.com reported Friday that it had received an e-mail stating that Webcasts from the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in June had also been edited. Specifically, comments made during the John Butler Trio show when a band member remarked on the government’s lack of response during Hurricane Katrina were deleted, as were comments from the group Flaming Lips about George Bush screwing up.
MTV.com also reported Monday that Pearl Jam’s publicist was notified that a fan watching the Bonnaroo concert also claims that comments made by Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine had also been edited.
AT&T originally said that it only edits Blue Room Webcasts for profanity since the site is available to all age groups. But a group calling itself the Future of Music Coalition, counted 20 instances of curse words being used during the Pearl Jam Webcast that were not censored by the content monitor.
“It’s clear AT&T has not made a mistake. They or the companies they’ve hired to monitor Webcasts have engaged in a clear and consistent pattern of silencing free speech,” Jenny Toomey, executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, said in a statement.
The Future of Music Coalition is a not-for-profit collaboration between members of the music, technology, public policy and intellectual property law communities. And the group took AT&T’s latest admission of censoring other bands as an opportunity to point out the need for new Net Neutrality laws to prevent AT&T and other phone companies from having too much control over content.
“This censorship speaks to the heart of plans by AT&T and other big telecoms to set themselves up as gatekeepers of Internet content,” Toomey continued. “If AT&T can’t be trusted to Webcast the political stage banter of a few rock bands, why would we turn the keys to the Internet over to them? Their promises to not block Internet content now ring hollow.”
I have to agree with the Future of Music Coalition. But to be honest, I am utterly shocked to discover that AT&T would be so stupid. It’s one thing to ratchet back bandwidth to degrade service of a competitor. That could be tough to prove. But when you blatantly bleep political speech, people notice and they’re going to get angry.
To be fair, Net Neutrality is not as straightforward as worries that large companies will turn internet content into the broadband equivalent of hearing Tony Soprano say “mother fudger” in basic cable syndication. One of Reardon’s readers, J.G., points out the two different aspects of Net Neutrality, using what he sees as her muddling of the issue as cause to support the actions of AT&T.
I am often startled by the lack of analytical ability revealed by the ‘writers’ on the Internet. This is an example. AT&T censoring political speech and the claims of ‘the content wants to be free’ activists are not remotely the same thing. So-called net neutrality is about control of the physical means of delivery of content via the Internet. Because it is basically an economic issue, it will be decided by those with a financial stake. Censorship by private entities is not a component of ‘net neutrality.’ The recourse for that problem would be a determination of whether broadband providers are acting in a quasi-governmental role and therefore subject to the strictures of the First Amendment. It boggles the mind that there are people who can’t grasp the difference.
The difference pointed out by J.G. is technically correct, but both types of threats to a non-neutral Internet have been demonstrated by the actions of large telecommunications companies. Indeed, “those with a financial stake” and “private entities” in this case are the same telecom, which has a history of contributing to political campaigns. This may be the first time that content meddling by an Internet provider is demonstrably political, however.
Here are a couple of other examples that concern those advocating for a free Internet.
- As their workers striked in 2005, Canadian telecommunications giant Telus blocked subscribers access to a website sympathetic to the union showing workers crossing the picket-line. This is an example of a telecom censoring content.
- In 2004, DSL customers of North Carolinian company Madison River Communications were restricted from using Vonage’s VoIP (Voice over IP) service. This service competed directly with the telecom company’s landline telephone service. The FCC intervened and fined Madison River $15,000. This is a prime example of the “so-called net neutrality [which] is the about the physical means of delivery of content.”
In a Washington Post blog article on the subject, a commenter called DB left the following comment, which helps to clear the air on this subject.
Prioritizing traffic is one thing. Editing of content in transit is a completely different matter.
Large transport providers are certainly entitled to prioritize traffic as they choose — including by who’s paying them — but they cannot and should not be permitted to block “best effort” traffic, or to modify the content without forfeiting all their legal protections as common carriers. There is also an contract with their customers who are already paying for connectivity; blocking access to “non-paying” traffic defeats the value of that connection, and (IMHO) constitutes misrepresentation of the product to the consumer.
Don’t much care about Pearl Jam. I do care that we be able to exchange information without pre-selected approval.
In order to make their control over Internet infrastructure more profitable, these companies would like to create a system whereby the companies that create Internet content (Google, etc.) would have to pay extra for priority delivery (as opposed to “best effort”) of their content. This is a big reason to advocate for the public or municipal rollout of broadband infrastructure, as has been done in Lafayette, Louisiana.
As large telecommunications companies seek entry into new markets (think Time Warner or Cox Cable setting you up with both your Internet and your home phone line), it makes business sense for them to provide poorer connection speeds to small businesses competing in these markets (think Skype or Vonage) or to unpaid independent individuals creating Internet content who can’t afford to pay extra “tolls” on telecom infrastructure. Those fighting for Net Neutrality are not only protecting our right to free speech, they are defending our economic right to use a free Internet to speak loudly as we like.
Media moguls like Rupert Murdoch (News Corp, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal) have obscured the line between the creation and delivery of objective journalism. Verizon and AT&T both have been criticized for their union-busting activities. The boards and directors of media, telephony, cable, and Internet companies influence and are influenced by politicians in our country.
In light of all of this, doesn’t it make sense to keep an eye not only on content censorship but also on discrimination in the type and source of data delivery? The Internet has become the last line of defense for open information in a free society. If we aren’t careful, its open source information will be drowned out by large coorporations, and the Internet will go the way of amateur radio, public access television, and the artistic integrity of rock and roll music.