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Comcast: Death Star 3.0?

1/20/2009 11:28 AM

UPDATED: Sorry, it’s simply impossible to cast mild-mannered Brian Roberts as an evil Sith overlord, drumming lacquered fingernails on a console in his dark space-tower of doom, hell-bent on stopping hapless customers from sharing public-domain show tunes and anime.

Wired’s piece on Roberts in the February issue (”The Dark Lord of Broadband Tries to Fix Comcast’s Image”) is packaged like a clever bit of anti-corporate truth-telling, but the truth is less sensational.

The article’s narrative arc pits heroic file-sharing rebels and academics — who just want the ‘Net to be free, man! – against Roberts and the nefarious Comcastic Forces of Network Management.

The story line is forced, of course. And confusingly, after implying that Comcast is just blocking BitTorrent trafic to be mean and throw its weight around (thereby allowing Roberts to be “painted as power-mad, unable to restrain himself,” according to Wired) the article later quotes Roberts explaining that managing P2P traffic is a necessary step that all ISPs must take or watch their networks be swamped.

The Wired piece also is oblivious to the fact that departing FCC chairman Martin — in trying to inflate Comcast’s P2P throttling into a federal crime — has had a king-size axe to grind against Comcast in particular and cable in general. When the FCC issued its order slapping Comcast on the wrist for the P2P transgressions, Republican commissioner Robert McDowell released a dissenting statement pointing out that Martin had no procedural leg to stand on to enforce the agency’s Internet policy statement.

Indeed, Martin on Sunday opened a new probe into Comcast’s management of VoIP applications over its network just two days before he’s supposed to hit the bricks. Who again was “unable to restrain himself”?

Ultimately, the conclusion of the Wired article is that Comcast has had some tone-deaf PR, observing that Roberts and Comcast never thought the issue would erupt into such a public-relations fiasco. The lesson is that a few squeaky wheels and a public-policy lobbying apparatus that earns a living championing the “open” Internet are forces to be reckoned with.

But dressing up Brian Roberts as a fire-breathing evil “dark lord” is an absurd frame on which to hang the story. Here’s a catch-22: It’s the kind of press treatment that has made the PR team at Comcast HQ defensive, and that defensiveness is the fault the article finds with Roberts & Co.

Note: An earlier version of this post said the Wired article doesn’t discuss Comcast’s rationale for peer-to-peer throttling. In fact, the article does. My apologies for the oversight.

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