Telecommunications giant AT&T says no one should worry about their aggressive lobbying to eliminate net neutrality -- the first amendment of the internet that guarantees equality of access to all websites.
AT&T executives claim they would never interfere with web content.
When Americans hear this spin, they should hang up on AT&T.
The truth is that, within business circles, the company is already promoting its schemes for "shaping" the internet if net neutrality protections fall.
And a good sense of how the telecommunications corporation would like to "shape" the world wide web can be gleaned from reports of how AT&T managed the live webcast of last weekend's Lollapalooza concert when it came time for Pearl Jam to perform.
The Seattle-based band has a long history of highlighting smart political statements -- about war and peace, protecting the environment and promoting tolerance -- in its songs and in the on-stage comments of lead singer Eddie Vedder.
But on Sunday, when Pearl Jam was performing the song "Daughter" during the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, the band broke into a version of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." Reworking the lyrics of the classic rock song, Vedder sang, "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush, find yourself another home."
The lyrics that criticized Bush were muted in the webcast.
Coincidence? Not at all.
AT&T admits that the censorship occurred. The company describes the muting of Vedder's references to a president who appoints Federal Communications Commissioners -- and, thus, has a major role in deciding whether AT&T gets what it wants -- as "a mistake by a webcast vendor."
Then, in a nice Orwellian twist, the company declares, "We have policies in place with respect to editing excessive profanity, but AT&T does not censor performances."
In fact, "editing excessive profanity" is censorship.
And, of course, Vedder's lyrics about Bush, which were not profane, did in fact get censored.
Web-savvy Pearl Jam fans noted the silencing of the message and immediately contacted the band. Pearl Jam members released a statement on the censorship incident that declared, "This, of course, troubles us as artists but also as citizens concerned with the issue of censorship and the increasingly consolidated control of the media. 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's statement continued: "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's right. The censorship of Pearl Jam by AT&T serves as a reminder of what will be lost if net neutrality is eliminated and telecommunications corporations are free to decide which web sites are on "the information superhighway of the future" and which are on the gravel road of slow or impossible connections.
"This event shows that companies like AT&T will risk the appearance of censorship by turning off the sound on a webcast that's being viewed by thousands of people, just because it works counter to their financial interests," says Jenny Toomey, the executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, which has been working to defend net neutrality. "What do you think they will do to protect their financial interests on the web when no one is looking?"
Tim Karr, of the Save the Internet coalition, adds that, "AT&T's history of breaking trust with their customers includes: handing over private phone records to the government; promising to deliver services to underserved communities and then skipping town; and pledging never to interfere with the free flow of information online while hatching plans... to build and deploy technology that will spy on user traffic."
"The moral of this story is put Net Neutrality permanently into law and never trust AT&T at their word," says Karr. "The company acts in bad faith toward the public interest and will do whatever it can to pad it's bottom line -- including sacrificing its users freedom to choose where they go, what they watch and whom they listen to online."
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the nation's media reform network, which has helped to organize the campaign to defend net neutrality. With Robert W. McChesney, he is the co-author of Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy [The New Press].