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AT&T calls censorship of Pearl Jam lyrics a mistake

AT&T's Webcast of a Pearl Jam song at Lollapalooza on Sunday bleeped out references to George Bush. Now it plans to post the song in its entirety to ensure this doesn't happen again.

Apparently, saying disparaging things about President George Bush is enough to get you censored. At least that's what happened to the band Pearl Jam Sunday night during AT&T's Webcast of the Lollapalooza concert in Chicago.

According to fans who watched the concert on AT&T's Blue Room Web site, portions of the song "Daughter," in which singer Eddie Vedder altered lyrics to include anti-Bush sentiments, were bleeped out. The lyrics came during a segue into Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall."

The lyrics that were missing from the Web cast went like this:

"George Bush, leave this world alone; George Bush find yourself another home."

Pearl Jam was outraged. And the band railed against AT&T on its blog Wednesday for censoring the song.

"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," the band said on its site. "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."

AT&T issued a statement Thursday saying the whole incident was a big mistake. It had not intended to edit out any portion of the concert. Instead it blamed an overzealous Webcast partner who had supposedly been monitoring the Web cast to bleep out curse words.

"The editing of the Pearl Jam performance on Sunday night was a serious mistake made by a Webcast vendor and completely contrary to our policy," AT&T's statement said. "We have policies in place with respect to editing excessive profanity, but AT&T does not edit or censor performances. We have that policy in place because the Blue Room is not age-restricted."

AT&T said it is working with the vendor and the band to resolve the situation. And it plans to post the song in its entirety to ensure this doesn't happen again.

I understand people's sensitivity to vulgarity in this post-Janet Jackson-flashing-her-boob-world. But it really has to make you wonder how anyone monitoring a program specifically for offensive language or images would think that it was necessary to bleep political speech. Since when has the name "George Bush" risen to the ranks of a word that rhymes with "suck"? (I'm censoring myself here because I don't particularly like using that word anyway. But you get the picture.)

What's also strange is that other politically charged segments of the concert, including when Vedder brought a disabled Iraq War veteran onstage to call for an end to the conflict, were not edited.

So perhaps this was really a mistake. But the question remains, how did this happen? And how can it be prevented from happening again in an environment where all of our news, entertainment and information is being controlled by fewer media conglomerates.

Big phone companies argue that it's absurd to think they'd purposely block content, because users would simply go elsewhere. Pearl Jam even referenced in its blog one of my own CNET articles from last year, where I quoted former AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre saying, "Any provider that blocks access to content is inviting customers to find another provider."

But Pearl Jam brought up a good point on their blog when they said that in a situation where only one provider is offering content, it's easy for content to simply be deleted or blocked. It's also easy for a provider to block traffic from a service they think threatens their business.

"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 blog said.

Indeed, I agree with Pearl Jam. There's a slippery slope we're walking these days. How much control should network operators and big media companies have? In my opinion, it's time people start paying attention to all the big communication and media consolidation that is going on right now in this country. If we don't sit up and take notice now, there may come a time when it's too late.