Sunday, October 30, 2005

Oct 24 '05 MFP Review - The Replacements

Both the usual and the usual happened at the October 24 '05 quarterly review of Montgomery County's franchisee performance.

The Replacements

First, the usual.

Comcast noted that the General Manager role was temporarily being filled by Jaye Gamble, a regional director at Comcast. Jay didn't show up for the meeting. Representing Comcast was Angela Lee, also a regional officer, so she's Acting as well. RCN sent Richard Wadman. And Verizon weighed in with a replacement as well: Brianna Gowen. Previous Director of the FIOS project, Donald Heath, resigned. Sigh.

Finally, MC Cable Administrator Jane Lawton is likely to be stepping down from her position as MC Cable Administrator. This is pending confirmation by Governor Erlich to a Maryland Delegate seat. Although a delegate seat is only a 3-month/year occupation, according to the Cable Office, a legislator cannot also hold a regulatory position. In the future, I hope to give Jane a proper sendoff with a blog entry covering just her - she has after all served in this position for 10 years and through tumultuous times - but I'll hold off until she's confirmed.


And now the usual.

The county noted that Comcast was again over the permitted levels of violations in several areas. Furthermore, Comcast had failed to turn in the required reports on time for 4 of the last 5 months. Comcast was also taking too long to fix safety-related issues. The county was prepared to issue a fine, using the "liquidated damages" section of the franchise.

RCN, by comparison, was doing much better; however, Cable Administrator Lawton noted that she was having problems getting her phone calls returned since the company's liaison had gone on maternity leave. This seemed to be a total surprise to the RCN rep in attendence. How can stuff like this happen?

For Verizon, it was good news / bad news. The good news was that complaints were down significantly. (However, that didn't stop Comcast from returning to the all our troubles are due to Verizon theme.) The bad news is that nobody was able to say anything positive about the proposed Verizon TV franchise. Actually, Verizon vaguely said it was going well. But the Cable Office said Verizon had not responded to their most recent proposal. And the Council couldn't understand why it was totally out of the loop. Summary: Not good. If the franchise is signed by April, I'd be surprised.

In other words, the phrase of the day was continued posturing. Does anything ever change? The council members raised the same questions as they always do. For example:
  • Why does Comcast insist their internet reports (required by county code) are impossible to provide?
  • Why does Comcast advertise for new customers when they can't appear to handle their existing customers?
  • Why does Comcast tell us things that aren't true - such as school connections being completed when they haven't been?
  • Why does Verizon shower us with statistics that seem to be, oh shall we say, meaningless?

Wrap Up

The council finished up the day with some more empty threats about how mad they were - both at the franchisees and at the county executive. The council has the power to make things happen but all I see at present are empty words.

Lastly, you can view some the council's prep material here. The council complained (for the nth time) about the Cable Office turning its report in late so that it could not be included in the Council's prep material. Same for Verizon. (Comcast and RCN don't even turn anything in, sigh.)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Comcast Privacy Practices

Normally, I don't spend time commenting on national news - plenty of other people do that already - and just keeping up with the local events takes all the time I can afford to give. However, this news is close enough to home that I feel obliged to comment on it.

Recently, a town councilmember in Smyrna, Delaware tried to find out the identity of a blogger. The blogger had accused the councilmember of "obvious mental deterioration" and made a pun on his name suggesting he was gay.

ISPs generally will not turn over subscriber information except when required by court order. And such a court order was made - to Comcast. However, the case was appealed and ultimately worked its way to the Delaware Supreme Court. That court ruled that the anonymous blogging was akin to anonymous political pamphleteering, a subject that the US Supreme Court has ruled on.

Specifically, the statements were found to be opinion; Chief Justice Myron Steele wrote: ... no reasonable person could have interpreted these statements as being anything other than opinion. ... The statements are, therefore, incapable of a defamatory meaning.

Bottom line: Comcast was not forced to expose the blogger's identity.

Good job Comcast!

Or is it? What about Comcast's other privacy practices? Probably few people read Comcast's subscriber privacy policy. It's difficult to understand, boring as hell, and well, what's the big deal? Didn't Comcast just show that it protected a subscriber's identity?

Yes, but Comcast's privacy policy nonetheless raises significant concerns. You might even call them holes. Giant gaping holes.

Comcast actually has several privacy policies. For instance, it's got for internet service. And it's got another for TV service. And another for phone service. And yet another for their website.

Each of them explains that simply by using the service, you accept their privacy policy - whether or not you have read it. Or agree with it.

Let's delve into their internet privacy policy for a moment. Their policy mentions a dispute resolution process and alludes to compliance with TRUSTe, but a closer read finds many exclusions. In short, if you disagree with Comcast's privacy policy, your only recourse is to avoid using their service.


What are some examples of the holes in Comcast's Internet Privacy Policy?
  1. "Co-branded" Services. Services operated by other companies but with Comcast's name are not covered by the privacy policy. If you enter data about yourself, the company is free to do what it wants with it. This includes services such as newsgroups, video mail, instant messaging, and web hosting. Oh and let's not forget support. Since half of Comcast's support is carried out by contractors, anyone who calls in a few times is highly likely to have exposed their personal information to the privacy policies of other companies; policies that you have not read or have any idea about.

  2. Marketing. Although Comcast's privacy policy says it is "committed to maintaining your privacy" there are too many holes in the words surrounding that phrase. For example, consider this: Comcast may combine personally identifiable information, which we collect as part of our regular business records, with personally identifiable information obtained from third parties for the purpose of creating an enhanced personal database to use in marketing and other activities related to the Service and our other services.
Who knows what that could mean? Elsewhere, the policy is more overt: Comcast may use and disclose personally identifiable information as provided for by applicable law in order to perform, for example: ... marketing.

And this: We sometimes disclose personally identifiable information about you to our affiliates but with no explanation of what "affiliates" are.

And this: We sometimes also disclose personally identifiable information about you to our employees for Comcast's internal business purposes, as well as to outside auditors, professional advisors and service providers, potential business transition partners, and regulators. ... We may also disclose certain personally identifiable information about you to third parties such as, for example, charities, marketing organizations, or other businesses, in connection with disclosures made for "mailing list" or other purposes as described below in this Policy.

And not only can personally identifiable information include your name, address, cable plan, and usage, but also your internal computer settings, cookies, preferences, and so on.

Finally - not that it matters by now - Comcast reserves the right to change their policy at any time and without notification: If we change this Policy, we will post those changes on the homepage of the Service Web site, or in other places we deem appropriate, so our subscribers are aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. We will use information in accordance with the Privacy Policy under which the information was collected. Your decision to continue receiving the Service after we make any changes to this Policy shall be deemed to be your express consent to the changes in the revised Policy.

Cable Office Weighs In

The Montgomery County Cable Office is also upset about Comcast's Privacy Policy. However they only have authority over the Cable TV Privacy Policy. Their TV policy has some differences from their internet policy. And it is further governed by the 1984 Cable Privacy Act. However their TV policy also has distressing similarities. Yes, there are enough loopholes in it that Comcast could be said to be adhering to the letter of the law if not the spirit of it.

However one clear violation is as follows: The Comcast franchise (see section 9.f.4) with Montgomery County requires all information distributed to customers - including the privacy policy - to be approved by the Cable Office. And Comcast has not done that. Instead, Comcast has claimed that they now have a national policy and do not have the flexibility to have a local policy that would be different.

As I understand it then, Comcast is in violation of the franchise and the County has not seen fit to live up to its responsibility and take action. Yes, they have notified Comcast but basically Comcast has ignored them. I have no inside knowledge of these interactions but I can only presume that the Cable Administrator has informed the Executive and the Executive has declined to take further action.

This is a mistake. Protection from abuse by our franchisees is one of the reason we pay our franchise fees - that's 5% on top of the bill that goes directly to the county. In addition, disinterest in enforcing parts of the franchise opens the door for Comcast to ignore other parts with similar reasoning.


So there you have it. Comcast gets headlines for protecting subscriber privacy with one hand while at the same time, well, not protecting subscribe privacy with the other hand. Don't like the policy? Too bad. By using the service, you have already accepted it.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Open Mike, Close Ears

In a recent letter to constituents, Montgomery County Councilmember Mike Knapp, rehashes the Verizon FIOS installation saga. Cleverly called "Open Mike", the letter is just a little too open in my opinion - lacking any references or statistics for his assertions. I don't like it.

For example, he says "Frankly, I'm not sure a day still passes where we don’t get one, sometimes many complaints." He's not sure? Huh? Then why say it? How many complaints is his office really getting? Why is his communique free of any actual numbers?

Another example of Mike's pearls: "And now, last evening, I was notified that more than a thousand Germantown residents had lost their cable because Verizon’s subcontractor and cut through their cable lines." Notified by whom? The letter says it was delivered to the council Sept 20 but I've seen no complaints on broadbandreports (where such outages are commonly reported) that would serve to back up his assertion. Could everyone in the Germantown area who reads this and lost connectivity then, email me? Or even one? Details (specifically time, duration, and location), please.

Knapp goes on to make other assertions, such as this one about driveways being "torn apart" saying "If the driveway is fixed, it is often fixed poorly." Torn apart? Fixed poorly? Often? Where are the numbers to back these assertions up? Photos?

Knapp continues that he "read in the newspaper that Verizon was still rather lamely asserting that the problem didn’t really lie with them, but rather with allegedly mislabeled utility lines.  According to Verizon, it was someone else’s fault." Councilmember, what newspaper did you read that in? None of those which I read characterized it as "lamely" or anything close to it.

Wait, it just occurred to me what's going on. Knapp missed the previous council meeting at which Comcast made the same assertion only to have it blow up in their face. And none of his staffers briefed him on the outcome. Councilmember Knapp - please get up to speed. Review the notes from the meeting. Or read some blogs. Yes, Verizon is causing problems for Comcast. But your hyperbole isn't helping. The reality is that Comcast shares a large part of the blame. Verizon isn't saying they're blame-free. When you claim that they are, it makes you look uninformed and unhelpful - as if you cannot even understand the paper that you claim to read and cite. And cannot understand the council meeting notes that you haven't taken the time to carefully review.

Upcoming Quarterly Review of Comcast, RCN/Starpower, and Verizon

The Montgomery County Council's MFP Committee reviews the performance of its franchisees Comcast and RCN (nee Starpower) every three months. It's that time again. And Verizon is getting to be a regular invitee as well. Join me in person or watch using the county's video streaming or archive service. Of course, cable customers can also watch it live on TV. (Does anyone do this?) I plan to attend in person. The handouts are just too good to miss - and due to the poor quality of the video feeds, you can't read the viewgraphs except in person. Best of all, I can't wait to see which new sacrificial lamb Comcast sends this time.