It is fascinating to watch large vendors operate. In action, they don't resemble the way they portray themselves as edgy and trendy in commercials. The latest string of news on Comcast effectively walking away from the entire Net neutrality process got me to draw lines between that and the ISO OOXML event that has been on my mind for a couple of cycles. Comcast is clearly taking a different path from Microsoft.
There is a huge debate on Net neutrality, which argues that regardless of what you can afford, your connectivity should be constant. While I can see the reason behind such a movement, like many others of its type, I have trouble seeing how it will work economically. I think it will simply mean we all get Internet connections that suck.
So, I'm kind of on Comcast's side on this stuff, yet the elimination of public discourse on the subject is disturbing. The outcome of either assuring adequate Internet connections or creating an environment where large portions of the population effectively are disconnected is serious to the U.S. as a nation. This subject desperately needs to be vetted.
The Comcast Harvard Setup
A few weeks ago, Comcast did attend hearings at Harvard University and to control the discussion, stacked the audience with paid attendees. Many of these folks apparently cheered the Comcast spokesperson making a presentation; many apparently used the opportunity to catch up on their sleep.
By paying folks to attend this event, the very people who are most affected by things like Net neutrality were locked out of the hearing, effectively making it look like Comcast's position was well supported regardless of the reality.
If you've been following the OOXML ISO process, you know that a Microsoft employee paid some of the folks who voted in an early round of the approval process to show up and vote. Both Microsoft and Comcast faced a substantial amount of criticism for their respective activities. While Microsoft appeared to regret what it did, Comcast apparently did not. In both cases, but particularly in the Comcast instance, I was concerned to find out that the practice of paying people in this fashion is very common and not at all illegal. I'm probably not alone in thinking it should be.
The Comcast Stanford Response: Setting the Example
Where Microsoft continued the process until it got approval, Comcast has chosen to exit the process and likely has shifted efforts towards lobbying and other forms of political manipulation, which generally operate outside the public view. Specifically at the Stanford hearing, only one side will be represented, mostly by Lawrence Lessig, making the event far less interesting and likely keeping any related coverage down in the noise level.
After a pounding for gaming a system that clearly lacked needed controls and enforceable rules, Comcast has decided to stop playing the game. The differences between Comcast's move and Microsoft, which continued to play but also continued to get pounded, are jarring.
Now, in both cases, the companies tried to game the process and likely felt, for good reason, that third parties were gaming the process against them. In both cases, the firms were held accountable for questionable practices that were allowed within the rules. Microsoft now faces continued attacks based on alleged but unproven additional improprieties and what appears to be a connected attempt to ban products from the very geography that had put in place the ISO requirement in the first place. Comcast is largely no worse off than it was in the first place and it's arguably much better off than Microsoft.
Wrapping Up: Which Behavior from Large Companies Do You Want?
Looking at these two events, any company should come to the conclusion that the Microsoft path of trying to participate in things like this is simply stupid and that stonewalling will be vastly more successful both short and long term. If what people want is for vendors like Microsoft and Comcast to change their behavior, this would seem to me to be a foolish path. It can take decades to force a company like this to change. Look how much change we eventually got from pounding on AT&T after something like 40 years.
It is in our nature to game things; we game our performance reviews, we likely game our education (some more than others), and we certainly game our relationships. Assuming people working for companies won't do that is foolish, but the corrective effort should be focused on making the processes more robust so that some types of gaming do not compromise the quality of the outcome.
In short, if we want to successfully encourage large companies to play better, we have to use both the carrot and the stick. But use too much stick and they'll do what you or I would do in a similar situation -- avoid the process at all costs. That is what Comcast is doing and that is far from a win for those of us who just want to see things get better.