If ever there was a wake-up call the US got it yesterday when it was revealed that during a live webcast of a live gig held last weekend, the operator AT&T unilaterally took it upon itself the right to censor the lyrics of a song by the rock band Pearl Jam.
A degree of self-censorship on the part of broadcasters is now usual in the US following Janet Jackson's unfortunate "wardrobe malfunction" that happened during her duet with Justin Timberlake as the pair "entertained" the crowd during half-time at the Superbowl a couple of years ago.
As the spot was also beamed live into tens of millions of US homes, viewers were startled, and, a little later, outraged, to see Ms. Jackson flash one of her breasts at the nation as her clothing somehow fell apart mid-act.
Since them it has become routine for broadcasters of live events to build in a short electronic delay to allow themselves time to bleep out any swearing or displays of sexual excess. They do this because otherwise they could find themselves facing huge fines and perhaps even closure as, in a massive over-reaction to an adolescent prank designed to provoke a response, the US authorities introduced swingeing prospective penalties that will be imposed on broadcasters should such a terrible event ever happen again.
Yesterday as condemnation of the censorship grew, AT&T finally broke its silence and admitted that the lyrics of a song criticising US President George W Bush were cut from Pearl Jam's gig at Lollapalooza in Chicago on Sunday last that was shown on AT&T's Blue Room entertainment site.
Pearl Jam were doing a singalong number to the tune of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" and, in the second chorus, the band had altered the lyrics to " George Bush, leave this world alone", and "George Bush, find yourself another home." Hardly Shakespeare, I'm sure you'll agree but worthy of censorship in the land where the right to freedom of speech and expression is enshrined in the Constitution? I think not.
At the time of the webcast AT&T said nothing about the cutting of the lyrics and only, reluctantly, admitted it had happened when Pearl Jam fans contacted the band via its own website to complain and inform them of what had happened. They also posted the song as cut by AT&T and as it was really sung at the time.
AT&T kept quiet for as long as it could and then, in a classic example of passing the buck, immediately blamed its subcontrator, the company's so-called "content monitor" – as lizardlike and slippery a nom de plume for a censor (because that's what a "content monitor" actually is) as you will find anywhere on the planet including Burma, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe.
In a statement , an AT&T mouthpiece, Michael Coe, said, "Those lyrics in no way, shape or form, are something that should have been edited. This was a major mistake by a webcast vendor", and went on to say that the company it had hired to manage the cybershow had overstepped its authority.
Frankly, I for one simply don't believe it. Someone, somewhere in AT&T at some time decided that the company has the right to act as censor. This is hugely dangerous. It is about much, much more than cutting a few words from a song being sung by a rock group.
It is an evident and scary step down the slippery slope to totalitarianism.
Basically what we are being asked to believe is that a subcontrator, out of a sense of misplaced loyalty or in a creepy way of attempting to stay in the good books of some high-up executive who thinks that the current president of the US is beyond criticism by the little people, decided to cut bits it thought might offend its employers and, secondarily, sections of the American public (and, in a democracy, so what if it did?).
This stinks. It reminds me of nothing so much as the English king Henry II who, annoyed by the rather too Christian sensibilities of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a' Becket, ruminitively asked, in the presence of a gang of killer knights, "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" and then affected shock and remorse when these courtiers currying royal favour duly went to Canterbury cathedral and murdered the holder of the highest church office in the land. This was on December 29, 1170, but it seems nothing much has changed in the 837 years since.
Tell me that there's not a parallel there with this weeks' happenings in the US, but I'll take some convincing.
This action by AT&T or its lackey shows up in stark relief the dangers of the increasingly consolidated control of the media as it is concentrated more and more into fewer and fewer hands. The power that big corporations and their entirely unelected and unrepresentative executives have over determining what the public sees and hears through communications media is frightening and evidently out of control.
What's more most telcos in America utterly oppose the concept of "net neutrality" and through their big PR departments and the insidious lobbying system that so distorts the US political process insist and promise that the public can trust them not to set themselves up as censors.
Remember that only this March, the then in-post and now newly-retired CEO of AT&T, the self-styled "John Wayne of Telecoms", Ed Whitacre, said, in public and on the record, that concerns the telco or other big carriers might decide to block traffic that someone within the organisation doesn't like, "are overblown and will not happen".
Yeah, right. That was five months ago.
The operators also say that it would not be in their interests to block access to content as to do so would be tantamount to inviting subscribers to take their business elsewhere.
That may be so but, a) what if the punters don't know that content is being censored? (in this case AT&T certainly wasn't going to volunteer to tell them, and b) what if there is only one provider to choose from? (look at the consolidation in the US market and the drift back to the status quo ante the break up of AT&T back in 1984 and that thesis seems far from farfetched).
These companies have too much power if they can, unilaterally and without any form of mandate whatsoever, simply block access to or arbitrarily edit anything based upon their own prejudices, preferences and interpretations. It is simply wrong. Today it's a rock concert, the next time it will be a political speech or rally and then it will be the "monitoring" and censorship of phone calls, web browsing and emails.
You can bet your bottom dollar that AT&T will use every weapon in its extensive armoury to minimise the damage it has done to itself and will spare no efforts to assure the US people that this is an unfortunate one-off that can't happen again, and wasn't very important anyway because it was only a pop concert that only a few people were watching.
No. It's the thin end of the wedge. It's happening now and it will happen again. Wake up before you are so drugged by bread and circuses that you sleepwalk into dictatorship.
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