Thursday, August 09, 2007


AT&T Censors Pearl Jam . . . and?

So AT&T has this music portal called The Blue Room, and during a recent Pearl Jam performance they censored lyrics that said, "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush find yourself another home." According to Information Week [link], AT&T spokesman Michael Coe admitted that AT&T employs censors, which he calls, "Web Monitors," saying,
"They are told only to edit for excessive profanity, not really for the songs, but the banter going on between band members or band members and the audience, as well as any nudity that can arise."
Apparently a Web Monitor got over-enthusiastic and bleeped the Bush lyrics.

Gigi Sohn and Art Brodsky at Public Knowledge [link] and Tim Karr at Free Press [link] say that the incident demonstrates AT&T's hypocrisy for saying (in a Network Neutrality context) that it won't block content. AT&T spokesman Coe said that the bleepage had . . .
". . . nothing to do with Net Neutrality . . . The Blue Room is not a revenue generating site for us. It is a free site."
In other words, to AT&T, Network Neutrality wasn't violated because there was no discriminatory charging. It was a free site, so NN couldn't have been violated.

AT&T completely fails to get that Network Neutrality is about freedom of speech. To AT&T, it is all about economic efficiency, that is, about charging according to a customer's willingness to pay.

Netheads don't see it that way. Their fear is that another party will control their speech on line. And they are afraid of discriminatory charges that would raise barriers to innovation.

The two parties frame the problem differently, so they are talking past each other.

To me, the alleged incident was NOT a violation of NN, but not for the reason AT&T cites. The locus of censorship was not AT&T's Internet access lines. It occurred at the application level, at a Web site that could have been run by anybody. But it was censorship by a big company with exclusive rights to Webcast this event. And it angered Pearl Jam, which said, "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 incident holds a lesson for the enforcement of NN! If you put somebody in charge of blocking content, even, as in this case, "excessive profanity . . . as well as any nudity that can arise," the locus of control shifts from the viewer to the Web Monitor. And the Web Monitor's charter is certain to expand, because the Web Monitor works for somebody other than the band and the viewer.

AT&T Spokesman Michael Coe said, "Our policy is not to edit or censor performances." But at the same time, is turning private records over to the U.S. government, the ultimate editor-censor. And it has announced it will deploy "anti-piracy technology" to police its network for the RIAA and MPAA. No press story I saw picked up this point. If it's differentially classifying content, it will be editing and censoring.
In the current incident, one man's excessive profanity was another man's constitutionally protected petition for redress. But even if the content classification were completely automatic, there still would be violations of free speech -- for example, how is an automatic classifier going to know when copyrighted material is subject to fair use? It won't. Once the network does any content selection whatsoever, mistakes will happen, the classifier's charter will creep, and larger principles will be overlooked. See my previous blog post, Treating Different Types of Communications Differently.

We Netheads must understand that to the telcos and cablecos, its all about the money. Talking to them about First Amendment Rights don't mean squat. To them, its all about the money. As long as it is in their interests to discriminate -- to charge what the market will bear on each transaction -- discrimination will create barriers to free speech and innovation. Because to them, it is all about the money. When they're charging on a transaction basis, i.e., using their network to go after application level transactions, we'll be fighting discrimination, no matter what they say, no matter what the law is. Because it is all about the money. The only way out of this mess is to make it illegal for access providers to have a financial interest in what they carry. Because to them, NN is a change to their business model, so we might as well be explicit about where they can -- and can't -- get their money.

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Good point David. As it is all about the money consider, say the RNC, telling AT&T hey you block access to progressive sites and we'll get you legislation that will make you billions more. All too possible, and that's scary.
I'm pleased to hear that you don't think this is about Network Neutrality; I concur with you, and for the reason you state: AT&T *as a program producer* bleeped some content.

As is their right.

Let's all do our best to make the distinction clear... while not losing sight either of the fact that there are *lots* of things with AT&T in their name.
If Pearl Jam doesn't like AT&T's editorial policy, perhaps they should not have taken their money and instead let someone else sponsor and webcast their concert.

Nobody forced them to go with AT&T...
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