THE BLOG
08/20/2007 02:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

AT&T, Not Cool

Not being "in the demo," as they say in the media biz, I didn't hear about AT&T's censorship of the rock band Pearl Jam until a friend in the social investing world told me about it. If you were not paying attention to the Lollapalooza music festival staged recently in Chicago, you probably didn't hear about it either. But a whole lot of people have heard about it, and that's a problem for AT&T.

The facts, as I understand them, are these: AT&T runs a website called Blue Room that offers live music from music festivals, streaming music, movie trailers, sports videos and video game reviews. I can't tell what the business purpose is, but I suspect that Blue Room is, at least in part, an effort to imbue some coolness to the AT&T brand. As you may know, the phone companies have been trying for more than a decade to get into the entertainment business, with what can be charitably described as mixed results. When I covered media, I occasionally interviewed telecom executives and let's just say that they are about as charismatic, entrepreneurial and show biz-savvy as you'd expect lifelong employees of a regulated utility to be.

In any case, during Lollapalooza, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder altered the lyrics of a Pink Floyd song "Another Brick in the Wall" (now that's my demo) to say, "George Bush! Leave This World Alone." This was evidently too much for the delicate sensitivities of the gatekeepers of AT&T's Blue Room, and so they blocked it out. Also cut out was a line that said, "George Bush! Find yourself another home." This is the kind of thing that Democratic presidential candidates say on the stump every day. Fortunately, they need not seek approval first from AT&T.

Pearl Jam's fans noticed the deletions, of course, and contacted the band, which said on its website, "AT&T's action strikes 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." You can read more about the band's reaction at MTV News.

This is where the story gets interesting.

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. (Ah, that explains everything...) Others used the brouhaha to argue for an idea called "net neutrality" that would limit the ability of AT&T and other Internet service providers to control what flows through the Internet to their customers. AT&T and other ISPs say they would never use their power as gatekeepers to interfere with content -- a claim that has considerably less credibility today than it did a couple of weeks ago.

A group called OpenMIC and its executive director Michael Connor said in a press release that:

...since its founding Pearl Jam has reportedly sold more than 60 million records worldwide and is fortunate to be able to demand that AT&T make available an unedited version of the band's performance on the web.

"Think of all the musical artists and other content providers that don't have the reputation and resources of Pearl Jam. How will we ever know if the gatekeepers at telecom companies have decided they don't meet some arbitrary standard of what's worth broadcasting on the web?" asked Connor.

When the controversy caught the attention of Trillium Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm with $1 billion under management, including more than 200,000 shares of T, the firm asked AT&T to investigate. Steve Lippman, vice president of social research at Trillium, who brought the issue to my attention, wrote:

As citizens we are alarmed whenever the free marketplace of ideas is impeded by political censorship. As shareholders we are most concerned about the impact such controversy can have on AT&T's reputation among consumers and its good standing in regulatory and legislative communities.

What's that they say at AT&T? "Your World. Delivered."

Well, sort of.