Comcast's version of customer service should concern patrons

A wall poster caught my eye on a recent visit to a San Francisco company that provides online customer support. "Customer service," it announced, "is the new marketing."

A wall poster caught my eye on a recent visit to a San Francisco company that provides online customer support. "Customer service," it announced, "is the new marketing."

Well, not entirely. Traditional marketing and PR, which themselves are blurring, still play a major role. But I don't doubt that great service and support are the surest way to keep customers and - in an age when people increasingly rely on recommendations - win new ones.

That's why I found a front-page New York Times story in late July almost laughable. The article lauded cable TV and Internet giant Comcast for the way it watches what people say online about the company's service and then, in some cases, responds to complaints.

It's been a long time since cable TV service has been part of my life. The last time was back in the 1990s when a company, later bought out by Comcast in cable's rampant consolidation era, held the local monopoly in the city where I lived. The company's service was so bad, I switched to satellite and never looked back.

Now Comcast and other Internet service providers are finding ways to annoy "broadband" customers (it's in quotes because what we call "broadband" in the US is such a pathetic imitation of the real thing found in places like France and Japan). Comcast's management of traffic has included monkeying with some people's connections in ways that restrict their ability to use peer-to-peer networks, even for entirely legitimate purposes.

Customer service in a duopoly business like "broadband" should be a no-brainer. You provide what people want and then fix the problems that inevitably occur.

Except that Internet providers in this position take it for granted that they can manipulate our connections to serve their purposes. Sometimes those measures manage networks in benign ways, but as they become more and more partners with - or players in - the video content business themselves, they are inevitably going to manage for their own benefit, not ours.

Congress and the FCC have been looking at this issue, known under the "network neutrality" moniker. Despite some rhetoric to the contrary, both have sided with the giant companies.

We should be skeptical of the specific proposals to ensure neutrality of access. Sometimes fixes can be worse than the problems they try to solve. The right solution would be to separate carriage - the provision of service - from all content. It won't happen anytime soon.

But the duopolists' desire to tell us what bits we'll get in what order and at what speed - if we can get them at all - is not just a kind of media consolidation that should scare us. It's the most profound threat to freedom of speech in a long, long time.

Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mails to dan@gillmor.com.

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