Comcast has admitted to paying people to fill the seats in a federal hearing on how it manages its broadband network. Accused of blocking interested parties from attending, Comcast is now being blamed for stifling debate over a free Internet.
Digital Journal — In a hearing at Harvard Law School, U.S. Internet service provider Comcast was before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to talk about its traffic shaping policies. At the center of the conversation was Comcast's policy of degrading broadband quality of peer-to-peer traffic.
Critics have slammed Comcast, saying it has no right to police who is sending what over the Internet and degrading the quality of broadband service for which customers pay.
The debate is over Net Neutrality, where some believe the Internet should work on a paid tiered system, where you pay more based on how much bandwidth you use. Many ISPs like this idea (or at least the idea of capping traffic) because some users trade very large volumes of data.
This week Comcast attended an open hearing with the FCC to address these issues, and this is where the controversy occurred: The debate was set-up so the public could get information on how the FCC could proceed in cases where Net Neutrality violations occurred, but Comcast filled the seats, preventing scores of people from attending.
The company acknowledged it hired people to fill seats before the federal hearing. Comcast allowed its employees to take those seats when the hearing started.
Reports indicate as many as 100 people were turned away from the hearing because of a lack of space before the start of Monday's FCC hearing, as at least 300 people occupied the room inside. Critics now say Comcast is up to its usual tricks and the company is stifling debate.
"Here’s why this is a problem," reads a blog run by Free Press. "Comcast clearly paid disinterested people to fill seats. This barred interested citizens from entering. More than 100 people who arrived at the appointed time for the hearing were turned away by campus police because the room was already full."
Comcast told the Associated Press that it hired people to hold seats after Free Press, an advocacy group, called for its supporters to attend.
"For the past week, the Free Press has engaged in a much more extensive campaign to lobby people to attend the hearing on its behalf," Philadelphia-based Comcast said in a statement.
The doors to the hearing room opened at 7 a.m. and the hearing started at 11 a.m. As Comcast employees made it to the hearing, they took the seats of the paid seat-warmers. The company would not say how many people were hired, where they were found and how much they were paid.
In a statement, Comcast said it "informed our local employees about the hearing and invited them to attend. Some employees did attend, along with many members of the general public."
The company is being accused of unfairly filling the hearing room.
Timothy Karr, campaign director of SavetheInternet.com, issued the following statement: “First, Comcast was caught blocking the Internet. Now it has been caught blocking the public from the debate. The only people cheering Comcast are those paid to do so. We didn’t have to pay anyone to attend the hearing. Comcast’s actions raise red flags for most people — with good reason. Clearly, Comcast will resort to just about any underhanded tactic to stack the decks in its favor. And yet Comcast still expects us to trust them with the future of the Internet?”
FCC commissioners said they are looking for Internet service providers to be more open with customers about traffic management policies and practices.
Cohen said Comcast clearly outlines its network management policies on its website. The company said it openly admits it has an obligation to "temporarily delay P2P traffic if it has or is projected to have an adverse affect on other users in the network."
Comcast was hit with a lawsuit in late 2007 after a California man accused the Internet service provider of violating user contracts, false advertising and computer fraud because they block BitTorrent traffic. In that suit, a Mr. Jon Hart upgraded to Comcast's "Performance Plus" service specifically to use "blocked applications" like BitTorrent, but found nothing in their contract to indicate the company throttles traffic.