Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Comcast: Worst. Company. Ever.

Comcast: Worst. Company. Ever.

By Craig Aaron

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Comcast's awful customer service is one thing. But what's truly galling are its plans to turn the Internet into something that looks like cable TV.

Inspired by March Madness, the folks at the Consumerist blog recently set up brackets to determine America's worst company. The tournament was still going on as this column went to press, but I'm not afraid to predict the winner.

It will be Comcast - in a rout.

Sure, you skeptics are thinking, "What about Wal-Mart? Exxon? Halliburton?" I'll admit that we can't (yet) connect Comcast to child labor, environmental destruction or Dick Cheney (although clearly you've never sat for seven hours on a Saturday waiting for a new DVR). But I'm not alone in my seething rage for the nation's largest cable company.

The Internet is filled with sites - like ComcastMustDie.com, ComCraptic.com and ComcastSucks.org - dedicated to the company. Comcast customer Brian Finkelstein's video of one of its technicians sleeping on his couch has been watched more than 1 million times on YouTube.

Then there's Mona Shaw. This once mild-mannered retired nurse from northern Virginia (a square-dancing Unitarian, no less) got so fed up with Comcast's lousy customer service that she went down to the local office armed with a claw hammer. Here's the play-by-by from a Washington Post profile of Shaw:

Shaw storms in the company's office. BAM! She whacks the keyboard of the customer service rep. BAM! Down goes the monitor. BAM! She totals the telephone. People scatter, scream, cops show up and what does she do? POW! A parting shot to the phone!

Shaw was arrested and earned a $345 fine, along with the admiration of millions.

Awful customer service is one thing. But what's truly frightening are Comcast's plans to turn the freewheeling, open Internet into something that looks like, well, cable TV.

Comcast is one of the leading opponents of "Net Neutrality" - the fundamental principle that prevents service providers from discriminating against websites or services based on their source, ownership or destination. Along with AT&T, Time Warner and Verizon, Comcast has claimed that Net Neutrality is just "a solution in search of a problem." Well, here's the problem: Last fall, the Associated Press caught Comcast secretly blocking popular - and legal - peer-to-peer file-sharing. First, Comcast denied it. Then it claimed it was just "reasonable network management."

There's nothing reasonable about it. The Associated Press couldn't even upload a copy of the King James Bible. And the "bandwidth hogs" that Comcast targeted just so happened to be using a service that directly competes with Comcast's video business.

In response to a complaint filed by my colleagues at Free Press, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched an official investigation. Comcast kept denying, stonewalling and questioning the agency's authority. As part of its inquiry, the FCC held a hearing at Harvard University on Feb. 25. But Comcast was so afraid of scrutiny that it hired seat-fillers to crowd out the public and applaud on cue. But activists photographed the pawns sleeping through the testimony, and Comcast's ploy backfired in a big way. Net Neutrality might be complicated, but everyone knows a dirty trick when she sees it.

With a second hearing announced for April 17 at Stanford University, Comcast issued a press release on March 27, touting an agreement with BitTorrent, one of the firms it had been blocking. Comcast claimed the pact as evidence that the blocking could be "worked out through private business discussions without the need for government intervention." But of course the unenforceable deal doesn't apply to any other firms or future innovators.

This fishy-sounding agreement didn't fool FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. "While it may take time to implement its preferred new traffic management technique," he said in a statement, "it is not at all obvious why Comcast couldn't stop its current practice of arbitrarily blocking its broadband customers from using certain applications."

That's FCC-ese for "I'm not buying it."

To be clear, Martin hasn't always been a friend of the public interest. He has tried to gut media ownership limits and has rubber-stamped mega-mergers. He even voted for the ruling that put Net Neutrality in jeopardy in the first place. But let's give the guy a break. After all, he's human, which means he must hate Comcast, too.

Of course, if the FCC and Congress don't act quickly to stop Comcast and restore Net Neutrality, we may have to take matters into our own hands.

Two words: Hammer time.

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