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 V.17 No.13 | March 27 - April 2, 2008 

Thin Line

Comcast Can't Buy Love

It's dirty, money-grubbing trickery at its worst. Before a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearing last month, Comcast paid people off the street to stand in line and take up space, preventing adversaries from gaining entrance to the hearing held at Harvard.

Comcast owned up to paying passersby to hold places in the line, though the company denies it meant to fill seats. Dozens couldn’t get in after the room filled up.

Witnesses say the placeholders attended the hearing, and pictures at show suspected fillers sleeping in the audience. It's called a public forum, Comcast. That should mean anyone can attend, not just those with enough money to pay attendees. In a better world, having to buy your friends is its own punishment.

The FCC is holding a second public hearing at Stanford. At stake: network neutrality. The commission is investigating Comcast's custom of choking or blocking certain content over its network. Comcast says it's all in the name of smart business, but opponents say the company's trying to cripple competitors.

In Comcast's corner is the argument that if it didn't slow video-sharing applications during peak hours, all users would experience lag. Timothy Wu, a law prof at Columbia University and a proponent of net neutrality, called for government regulation at the first hearing.

Others say, and I agree, that the real issue is there's no real competition between consumer broadband providers. Harvard law prof Yochai Benkler was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "If you have no competition, you have to get into setting standards because abuses follow."

It seems to the average Albuquerque consumer to be a choice between Comcast and Qwest. Alternatives are available, maybe even better alternatives, but few have the advertising muscle these giants do.

Why is this Thin Line material? I'd be a fool if I didn't think plenty of you were reading this online. The future of news is that, someday, it will only shine through the pixels of your screen. I just hope when that day comes, everyone will have access to any part of the Web, no matter what time it is or which company is battling which.

Good on the FCC for holding another hearing, for at least appearing to take net neutrality issues seriously. Comcast shot itself in the foot with its unethical seat-warmer shenanigans. More critics may get the urge to attend after the botched job of the first—and they'll probably get there early.


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