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AT&T drops Pearl Jam's call

Pearl_jam In a prominent nod to one of the festival's lead sponsors, the logo for this year's Lollapalooza concerts in Chicago includes the tag line, "delivered by AT&T." But Sunday's headliner Pearl Jam complained that AT&T delivered less than the band's full performance during its Lollapalooza webcast. The powerhouse telco turned off the audio during the song "Daughter" while singer Eddie Vedder was railing against President George Bush. That bit of censorship -- which AT&T says was a mistake -- gave a bit of fuel to the forces arguing for "Net neutrality" regulations.

The missing lines -- "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush find yourself another home" -- are benign compared to some of Vedder's more pointed critiques of Bush and the Iraq war. This isn't exactly "I'm ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas" territory. So you have to wonder what the person who pulled the plug on Vedder was thinking -- or not thinking, as the case may be.

AT&T spokeswoman Tiffany Nels said the company goofed. Its Blue Room website is open to Internet users of all ages, so it tries to block "excessive profanity" from the broadcasts. It hires contractors to monitor the performances, and the broadcasts are delayed slightly to enable monitors to bleep off-color material. But those monitors aren't supposed to edit songs, just the stage patter between them, Nels said. "It's not our policy" to censor performances, Nels said, "and we regret the error." She added, "There was no profanity. It was a mistake."

AT&T wants to post an unexpurgated version of the performance on its Blue Room Lollapalooza page, but it will have to obtain permission from the copyright holder (which would be Pearl Jam, I believe). The band, meanwhile, says it will post the video on its own site soon.

Advocates of Net neutrality rules quickly seized on the incident as justification for requiring high-speed Internet access providers to provide a level playing field for content and services online. AT&T, one of the country's largest broadband suppliers, is one of the loudest opponents of such rules.

“The admitted censoring of a Pearl Jam performance is just one more reason why content should be protected against the actions of a company looking out for itself, rather than for consumers and the free flow of information over the Internet," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. "We join Pearl Jam in condemning censorship and in promoting Internet Freedom.  We hope the FCC and Congress take note.”

Added Craig Aaron, communications director for Free Press, "Every time something is censored or blocked it’s a 'mistake' or a 'glitch.' And that could well be the case. But of course there’s no way for users to know. That’s exactly how it will be on the non-neutral Internet and closed wireless networks, where AT&T will be a gatekeeper deciding what you see and when you see it."

When asked about the Net neutrality arguments, Nels of AT&T reiterated that what happened in Chicago was simply a mistake.

The photo of Pearl Jam, courtesy of the band's website, is by Kerensa Wight.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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