Net neutrality's stunning reversal of fortune: Is it John Oliver's doing?

A year ago, few outside the telecom community had ever heard of net neutrality, despite extensive news coverage. Here's how a comedy program made the general public care about a topic considered 'even boring by C-SPAN standards.'

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/File
John Oliver arrives at The 20th Annual Fulfillment Fund Stars Benefit Gala in Beverly Hills, Calif., Oct. 14, 2014.

[Update: The FCC voted this afternoon to pass net neutrality rules, in a 3-to-2 party-line vote.]

Less than a year ago, when a wonky policy debate over the principle of net neutrality and prioritized Internet “fast lanes” seemed to interest only telecom company suits and nerdy open Internet advocates, a comedian's 13-minute segment may have helped turn the national conversation’s tide.

At the time, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a former top lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries, was mulling new rules to allow broadband companies to provide “fast lanes” for content providers who were willing to pay for it.

“Yes, the guy who used to run the cable industry’s lobbying arm is now running the agency tasked with regulating it,” said John Oliver, host of HBO's "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" in June. “That is the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.... ‘Make sure they’re in bed by 8, there’s 20 bucks on the table for kibbles, so please don’t eat my baby.’” He then urged his viewers to contact the FCC.

Tens of thousands did, crashing the agency’s website and flooding it with comments the next few days, with millions more to come – the vast majority calling for net neutrality. And Chairman Wheeler, appointed by President Obama to lead the commission in 2013, was a good sport about it, telling reporters, “I would like to state for the record that I am not a dingo.”

On Thursday, the FCC is now expected to pass what seemed unthinkable less than a year ago: reclassifying high-speed broadband service as a basic public utility – a common service akin to phone lines, water pipes, or the electrical grid, and therefore deemed a kind of protected and regulated public good – and precisely banning the kind of “fast lanes” the companies who control the nation’s Internet infrastructure have long fought for.

And while the expected 3-to-2 partisan vote Thursday is poised to give a stunning victory to the advocates of net neutrality, Wheeler’s about-face in some ways reveals how the Jon Stewarts of the world and comedic takes on the news can be more influential than the Brian Williamses and more “serious” coverage of wonky subjects that nevertheless have profound social effect.

“John Oliver absolutely helped turn the tide in the net-neutrality debate,” says Aram Sinnreich, professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information in New Brunswick, N.J. “The FCC got flooded with an unprecedented number of citizen contributions to the policy discussions afterwards, that probably wouldn’t have happened to that extent otherwise.”

In introducing the segment, Oliver called net neutrality "even boring by C-SPAN standards" – a fact that activists, lobbyists, the nation's tech reporters had smacked into as they tried, largely in vain, to capture society's attention. The British comedian not only boosted his own profile with the segment, he changed the national conversation. Comedians from Richard Pryor and George Carlin to Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and Mr. Stewart have had profound influence on American culture and political discourse, but it's hard to think of another instance where one comedy segment had such an immediate effect on national policy.

Early last year, two federal court decisions had already gutted the agency’s long-standing “open Internet rules,” which prevented the big companies that own and maintain the Internet’s cables from picking and choosing which content they made available to consumers, or otherwise privileging certain Internet content with better and faster service – say, their own.

But the federal courts ruled that the FCC’s own 2002 definition of broadband as a less-regulated “information service” rather than a Title II “telecommunications service” meant that it lacked the legal authority to implement its net neutrality rules, the principle that requires all Internet providers to treat every bit of data that enters their wires the same.  

Indeed, these cases’ two powerful and politically-connected plaintiffs, Comcast and Verizon, had clamored to kill this rule for years in order to maximize their profits and deliver greater returns to their investors. After all, why shouldn’t they be allowed to charge extra fees for certain network-gobbling content providers, like Netflix? The basic net neutrality principle appeared all but dead at the time.

Grassroots advocates and a coalition of tech titans with The Internet Association, which includes Google, Facebook, and Twitter, had been battling the power of the telecommunications companies, too, but after the court ruling and Wheeler’s suggestions that fast lanes were on the table, the pendulum had shifted away from the “open Internet” idea.

Mr. Oliver’s 13-minute bit, which has been viewed over 8 million times on YouTube, was hailed by Time magazine as “the John Oliver effect,” explaining how the comedian has a knack for recasting wonky policy debates into a funny, accessible social commentary.

Rolling Stone featured the “fake news” comedian on its October cover last fall as well, and the Huffington Post called his show the best of 2014 and "one of the defining conversation starters in both popular culture and news media."

Oliver highlighted many of the criticisms net neutrality advocates had been saying all along, including its ability to perhaps “throttle” content providers like Netflix. Last year, after the federal court struck down the FCC’s net neutrality rules, Comcast appeared to force Netflix, which during peak times hogged a significant part of Internet traffic, to pay extra fees for direct connections to its networks.

But for months before the deal, Netflix had seen its download speeds drop suddenly and precipitously – which Oliver showed on a graph and jokingly called a “mob shakedown,” instantly making the advocates' point.

After the swell of 4 million comments, Wheeler eventually backed off from a plan permitting fast lanes, and Mr. Obama last November gave his support for the Title II designation and preservation of net neutrality.

But the Title II utility designation gives the government broad powers to regulate the rates Internet providers charge and to increase taxes and fees. “President Obama’s plan marks a monumental shift toward government control of the Internet,” said Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai in a statement earlier this month. “It gives the FCC the power to micromanage virtually every aspect of how the Internet works.” 

Wheeler has vowed a “light touch” on the FCC’s regulatory power, however, with “enforceable, bright-line rules” that will not include rate regulation or tariffs.

Congressional Republicans had tried to preempt the FCC’s Title II reclassification with legislation of their own. But on Wednesday, leaders conceded that without a bipartisan agreement, there was little to do to prevent the FCC from moving ahead.

“We’re not going to get a signed bill that doesn’t have Democrats’ support,” said Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, on Wednesday.

Experts expect the telecoms that manage the Internet’s infrastructure to sue the FCC again, and challenge the Title II “common carrier” utility designation. And on Wednesday, critics of the new policy said it would mire the system in uncertainty, creating havoc for investors and consumers.

But for now, the pendulum has shifted back to the advocates of net neutrality, including Professor Sinnreich, who along with many others, tweeted, “Thanks @iamjohnoliver!”

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