Why would Comcast need 'seat warmers' to appear to show support?

Comcast has admitted to paying "seat warmers" to attend an FCC hearing held Monday, to hear its arguments in favor of blocking P2P file transfers. But Comcast contends that the seat warmers left once company employees showed up.

In a phone interview today, the organizer of a Federal Communications Commission hearing Monday on the grounds of Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., disputed Comcast's statement, telling BetaNews that its paid "seat warmers" were only hired by the Internet service provider to fill seats until Comcast employees turned up to take their places.

Reached on her cell phone today, Catherine Bracy, the hearing organizer, told BetaNews that all of the people who appeared to be seat warmers were still in their spots in the audience at 11:30 am, after the opening statements in the FCC hearing had been completed.

At the hearing, the FCC heard testimony regarding Comcast's apparent blocking of P2P file transfers by its customers.

On Tuesday, Comcast released a written statement responding to published reports that the ISP had paid "seat warmers" to stop people siding against Comcast from gaining entry to the hearing. In it, the company contended that the seat warmers were only hired after the advocacy group Free Press "engaged in a much more extensive campaign to lobby people to attend the hearing."

However, Bracy told BetaNews today that when she arrived at Harvard Law School at 7:15 am on Monday, about 30 to 35 people were already standing outside, waiting to get inside.

"I initially thought, 'This is great! These people are so interested in the topics that they showed up early,'" according to Bracy, who is administrative manager at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "But when I started to give instructions about how to get on the wireless network, nobody seemed to want to get on the wireless network -- and some of them didn't even know what a wireless network is."

"I then started to think that they might not be there because they were interested in the topics," Bracy said.

Bracy noticed that all of the group of early arrivals were still seated at 11:30 am. Meanwhile, others who got to the site of the hearing later had to be turned away, due to lack of space.

Most of the early arrivals were still present at 12:15 pm, in the middle of the first panel discussion, Bracy said. After that, they left the room, one by one, throughout the rest of the day.

But people identifying themselves as Comcast employees did not show up to take the places of the exiting seat warmers, according to the hearing organizer.

Bracy said she recognized some but not all of those who were turned away as employees of Harvard's Berkman Center. "But I did not ask anyone for their affiliations," she told BetaNews.

Photos and descriptions in some publications depict middle-aged men dozing off in the audience along with younger fellows who look like they might be bikers.

Comcast spokespersons were initially unavailable for comment about Bracy's reactions to the company's written statement.

On Tuesday, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo reportedly subpoenaed Comcast's records to look into how the ISP is handling P2P file sharing through programs such as BitTorrent.

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