Comcast Paid Seat-Fillers at FCC Hearing

When William J. Santoro was turned away from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearing at Harvard Law School on Monday, he was surprised to learn that a number of seats in the room had been filled by people paid by the Comcast Corporation.

“I was outraged,” said Santoro, the building services manager for William James Hall. “I have been waiting for them to come to Boston, and here they were in my own backyard, and I couldn’t get in.”

The government commissioners were in town to hear experts and representatives of cable companies like Comcast discuss the role that corporations should be allowed to have in regulating consumers’ Internet use.

According to Craig A. Aaron, the communications director for Free Press, one of the groups presenting a petition before the FCC, the group became suspicious after interviewing crowd members about the issues being discussed in the hearing only to find that many did not know what the hearing was about.

“When our staff showed up, they were very surprised to see that there were so many people already there,” Aaron said.

According to Aaron, one of the people told a Free Press staffer that they were being paid to hold someone’s seat.

A Comcast spokesperson said that the company had paid people to serve as placeholders for Comcast employees and supporters who wanted to attend the hearing. The spokesperson said the company decided to hire people to save seats after seeing the numerous press releases and blog posts Free Press had published to encourage its supporters to attend the event.

“We were concerned that our supporters would have trouble getting into the room because so many people might be there so early,” said the spokesperson.

According to Aaron, more than 100 people were turned away from the hearing. Berkman Center fellow Wendy M. Seltzer ’96, who arrived at the hearing shortly before 11 a.m., was initially turned away from the hearing by HUPD officers and used the back staircase to gain entrance to the room.

“I saw these people come in and occupy seats throughout the first half of the day when the Comcast panel took place,” Seltzer said. She said it seemed pretty clear that these people were there to provide support for Comcast, noting that most of those seats were vacated during the second half of the hearing.

“I don’t think it achieved anything for Comcast,” Seltzer said of the people’s presence. “I think it was quite obvious to the commissioners that this was not grassroots support that had just materialized for Comcast.”

There was less concern with the influence the group’s presence may have had on the commissioners than with the part it played in keeping some people out of the room, Seltzer said.

“It seems like a troubling restriction on the general public’s ability to get in there,” said Seltzer. “There were people lining up outside that were genuinely interested in the issue.”

However, according to the Comcast spokesperson, people were coming in and out of the room throughout the day, making it possible for those initially turned away to get into the hearing.

“If people were very concerned about getting into the hearing, there was opportunity to get into the room,” the spokesperson said.

Others disagreed.

“I think Comcast owes Boston an apology for doing this,” said Aaron. “This is a hearing about companies blocking internet access and at the hearing they’re blocking public debate.”

—LAUREN D. KIEL