Comcast Accused of Hiring 'Seat-Fillers' for FCC Hearing on Internet Wrongdoing

The organizer of a federal hearing at Harvard Law School on Comcast Corp.'s treatment of subscriber Internet traffic on Wednesday said "seat-warmers" apparently hired by the company prevented other attendees from getting in.

Comcast has acknowledged that it hired an unspecified number of people to fill seats, but said the seat-warmers gave up their spots when Boston-area Comcast employees who were advised about the hearing arrived.

But Catherine Bracy, the administrative manager at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said most of the three dozen seat-warmers who arrived hours before the Federal Communications Commission hearing's start on Monday remained during the event's opening hours, as many other members of the public were turned away.

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Bracy said she saw a couple of the hired people dozing in the front row during opening remarks.

"I think it's disingenuous to say they were holding spots for Comcast employees," Bracy told The Associated Press, a day after advocacy groups that filed an FCC complaint over Comcast's network management accused the firm of trying to stifle debate at the hearing.

Bracy said when she arrived at 7:15 a.m. as doors opened for the 11 a.m. hearing, none of the 35 to 40 people waiting to get in appeared to know what the hearing's subject matter would be.

"No employees came in to take those seats when the event started," Bracy said.

Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said it hired seat-holders only after an advocacy group called Free Press urged its backers 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.

Fitzmaurice declined to comment further Wednesday in response to Bracy's statements.

The event featured hearty applause — some in response to comments from a Comcast executive who testified before the FCC's five commissioners, and some in response to Comcast critics' testimony.

The practice of hiring people to fill seats in advance of public hearings isn't unknown in Congress and other forums, but Comcast critics said this case was unique.

"First, Comcast was caught blocking the Internet. Now it has been caught blocking the public from the debate," said Timothy Karr, director of an advocacy campaign backed by a coalition including Free Press. "The only people cheering Comcast are those paid to do so."

FCC spokesman Robert Kenny declined to comment.

The hearing came in response to complaints before the FCC that Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, hampered file-sharing traffic on its cable-modem service. The company has repeatedly said that its traffic management practices are necessary to keep other Internet traffic, like Web content, flowing smoothly.

During the hearing, FCC commissioners signaled that they were looking for greater openness from Internet providers about their traffic management practices, and were ready to step in to enforce the agency's "open Internet" policies.

In addition to serving as the event host, Harvard's Berkman Center has another tie to the controversy. A codirector at the center, Charles Nesson, is among the parties that signed a petition along with Free Press asking the FCC to find that such practices violate agency policies.