Comcast Corp. admitted yesterday that it paid people to attend a government hearing. Company critics say the freelance attendees were there to crowd them out; Comcast says they were merely saving seats for employees.
The five-hour hearing Monday at Harvard University was organized by the Federal Communications Commission to address the issue of net neutrality, a hot-button topic for those who think there should be minimal restrictions on Internet traffic.
The topic has drawn wide interest from college students, media-reform groups, and Internet companies.
An official at Free Press, a nonprofit advocacy group that has criticized Comcast for limiting the amount of data some of its customers send over its network, accused the cable company of "stacking the deck" at the hearing with the 30 to 40 "seat-warmers." An official at Harvard said dozens of real participants were left standing outside the auditorium with placards.
"They were taking seats away from other citizens who had a right to be there," said Catherine Bracy, administrative manager for the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at the Harvard Law School. "It was a PR thing. [Comcast] wanted more people in the room who were sympathetic."
Comcast feared a loud and critical crowd at the hearing where executive vice president David Cohen was scheduled to testify. Comcast, which offers high-speed Internet to 48 million homes, has said it needs to manage Internet use so that a small number of customers transmitting very large video files do not clog the network for everyone.
Comcast says the number of seat-warmers was small in proportion to the capacity of the 290-seat auditorium. There was additional standing room.
The practice is similar to one in Washington, where people have been paid to stand in line for congressional hearings, a company official said. The seat-warmers were to reserve places for Comcast employees.
A number of Comcast employees did attend the hearing, but it was unclear whether the seat-holders gave up their seats for them.
For the week ahead of the hearing, Comcast said in a statement, "the Free Press has engaged in a much more extensive campaign to lobby people to attend the hearing on its behalf."
Attention was called to Comcast's tactic by Free Press officials who attended the hearing. One photographed two seat-warmers sleeping during the hearing.
"We spent time educating the public about the event and the issue," said Free Press spokeswoman Jen Howard, "and we did not have to pay anyone to attend."
Bracy, of the Berkman Center, said the group of seat-warmers caught her attention when she showed up at the Ames Courtroom at 7:15 a.m. Monday to prepare for the hearing.
About 35 people - mostly men dressed in jeans and baseball caps and one in a camouflage jacket - were parked in the first three rows of the auditorium drinking coffee and reading the Boston Globe, she said.
They were "regular Joes" who looked like they could have come from Dunkin' Donuts, Bracy said. She was surprised to find them there several hours before the late-morning event. "I thought, great, we're reaching out to new communities."
But Bracy's suspicions of the Internet activists grew when none of them appeared to know about wireless Internet capabilities and two in the front row fell asleep during the hearing.
"I mean," Bracy said, "they were supposed to be all fired up."
© 2008 The Philadelphia Inquirer