Aug. 10, 2007 -- Eddie Vedder, lead singer of the rock band Pearl Jam, is using his powerful pipes to call out corporate censorship after an AT&T webcast of the band's Lollapalooza performance that edited out Vedder's anti-George Bush musings.
The improvised lyrics in question were sung to the tune of Pink Floyd's "The Wall": "George Bush leave this world alone. George Bush find yourself another home."
The telecom giant has been contrite after last weekend's live webcast, calling the censorship an unacceptable mistake and saying its policies strictly forbid editing political messages out of webcasts.
But the politically charged band and activists are saying that the 15 seconds of silence is a resounding signal of a much larger issue: the power of Internet service providers to regulate what users can access when they surf the net.
"AT&T's actions 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," the band said in a statement on their Web site.
Following a rendition of Pearl Jam's song "Daughter" during the show at Chicago's Grant Park, Vedder transitioned into the Pink Floyd classic, singing the Bush lyrics to an enthusiastic crowd that shouted "No more war!" and held up homemade anti-war signs.
The first time Vedder sang "George Bush leave this world alone," the lyrics were transmitted to users on AT&T's Blue Room Web site. The second two anti-Bush verses were cut.
AT&T employs the firm Davie-Brown Entertainment (DBE) to edit their webcasts for profanity that is not a part of a song's lyrics, and also for nudity, company spokesman Michael Coe said. Political messages and curse words that are part of a song are not edited, he said.
DBE insisted that the censoring of the Pearl Jam lyrics was an honest mistake, not part of some broader political agenda to protect the president, and that they are undertaking a review of the incident.
"I don't think it was politically motivated," said DBE president Tom Meyer. "My guess is [the webcast editor] felt that it was something controversial and they had to make a snap decision, and they made the wrong one."
But Nicole Vandenberg, a spokeswoman for Pearl Jam, said that even if it was a genuine mistake, these excuses miss the point.
"This issue with the censorship of this rock webcast is just one small example of how easily this sort of 'mistake' can happen, and when you start thinking about what other 'mistakes' could happen, it makes this seemingly small incident one worth thinking about carefully," Vandenberg said.
The blogosphere was up in arms this week as well, rushing to Pearl Jam's defense and criticizing AT&T for overzealously monitoring the net.
The Hot Potato Mash blog noted the irony of the situation, that the censored lyrics were set to the tune of the famous Pink Floyd song that includes the line "We don't need no thought control," before writing: "This little 'mistake' was the last straw for me regarding AT&T. I will begin the process of transferring my cell phone number to another carrier today."
Pearl Jam has posted the entire unedited version of their "The Wall" performance on its Web site. AT&T said it is currently negotiating with Pearl Jam for the rights to post the unedited version as well.
But Vandenberg indicated the band might not release the video, saying that only when AT&T addresses Pearl Jam's concerns about censorship and the webcast editing process will the band consider releasing it.
The incident has sparked debate over whether so-called net neutrality regulations are necessary to rein in the power of Internet providers. Net neutrality legislation would strip ISPs of their ability to limit content users' access to certain Web sites, particularly those of their competitors.
Because the webcast in question was on a private AT&T Web site, it would be regulated by net neutrality laws even if they were adopted by Congress.
But Tim Carr, a neutrality advocate at the Save the Internet coalition, said AT&T's censorship is an excellent example of what could go wrong when ISPs control what their users see and hear.
"The censorship of Pearl Jam gives us a clear view of what the problem is: When you allow large Internet providers to also become gatekeepers to content there's too often a temptation to limit what people get to see," Carr said.
But AT&T's spokesman Coe called net neutrality laws "a solution without a problem." He added, "We have said repeatedly over and over that we will not block customers' access to legal content. We've said that in front of Congress. We've stated it as conditions of our merger with Bell South."
And at least one person said Pearl Jam and other activists are blowing this issue out of proportion to push their own personal agenda for net neutrality.
"To say that they're censoring is ridiculous? It's propaganda and it seems to be working," Derek Hunter, the executive director of the Media Freedom Project, said.
"Fifteen seconds of a concert sounds like a mistake to me."