Net Neutrality (Last Week Tonight)
"Net Neutrality" is the name of two segments of the HBO news satire television series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver devoted to net neutrality in the United States. The first, a 13-minute segment that is simply titled "Net Neutrality", was delivered on June 1, 2014, as part of the fifth episode of Last Week Tonight's first season. The second, which runs 19 minutes and titled "Net Neutrality II". was delivered on May 7, 2017, as part of the eleventh episode of the fourth season, and the 100th episode overall.
During these two segments, comedian John Oliver discusses the respective threats to net neutrality at the time of each segment. The first episode was about how, under the administration of President Barack Obama, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was considering two options for net neutrality in early 2014. The FCC proposed permitting fast and slow broadband lanes, which would compromise net neutrality, but was also considering reclassifying broadband as a telecommunication service, which would preserve net neutrality. After a surge of comments supporting net neutrality that were inspired by Oliver's episode, the FCC voted to reclassify broadband as a utility in 2015.
The second episode dealt with a resurgence of the same problem, except under the administration of Donald Trump. The FCC was proposing to eliminate the 2015 rules that classified broadband as a utility, thereby allowing the implementation of slow and fast lanes. Despite another surge of comments following the second episode, the FCC proceeded with its plans to eliminate the 2015 regulations.
- 1 Context
- 2 "Net Neutrality"
- 3 "Net Neutrality II"
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Last Week Tonight
Prior to the 2014 segment about net neutrality, Last Week Tonight had only aired four episodes, all of which were complex investigations of obscure problems. Bloomberg News called Last Week Tonight's approach "hardly a tried-and-true recipe for TV success." The late New York Times columnist David Carr commented that prior to the net neutrality segment, he thought Oliver's comedic style would "never work."
2014 fast-lane proposal
In January 2014, the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia provided a ruling in the case of Verizon v. FCC, in which Verizon Communications, an internet service provider (ISP), sued the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for violating its rights under the United States Constitution. The FCC had passed the Open Internet Order in 2010 following the outcome of Comcast Corp. v. FCC, where it was found that FCC could not censure Comcast's interference with their customers' peer-to-peer traffic. The order was meant as a further step toward ensuring net neutrality in the sense that ISPs could not block or discriminate against lawfully operated websites, apps, or web services. The ruling in Verizon v. FCC was that the FCC could not enforce net neutrality rules as long as service providers were not identified as "common carriers". However, the FCC was given permission to regulate broadband and craft more specific rules that stop short of identifying service providers as common carriers.
The ruling created a dispute as to whether net neutrality could be guaranteed under existing law, or if reclassification of ISPs was needed to ensure net neutrality. FCC chair Tom Wheeler stated that the FCC had the authority under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to regulate ISPs. However, others including President Barack Obama supported reclassifying ISPs using the Communications Act of 1934. Their reclassification would move ISPs from being a general provision, which fell under the act's Title I, to a common carrier, which fell under the act's Title II. Critics of Section 706 pointed out that the section has no clear mandate to guarantee equal access to content provided over the internet, while subsection 202(a) of the Communications Act stated that common carriers cannot "make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services." Advocates of net neutrality generally supported reclassifying ISPs under Title II, while FCC leadership and ISPs generally opposed such reclassification. The FCC stated that if they reclassified ISPs as common carriers, the commission would selectively enforce Title II, so that only sections relating to broadband would apply to ISPs.
In April 2014, the FCC proposed a set of new regulations that, among other things, would allow for ISPs to levy charges on websites in exchange for faster connection speeds.:3–4 The "fast lane", as the proposal was called, would prioritize that website's internet connection over those of other websites that did not pay, although the ISP could not outright block web users from accessing websites that did not pay for "fast lanes".:3–4 In addition, in enacting these "fast lanes", ISPs had to divulge whether they were promoting the content of sponsors or affiliates.:6 This was at least the FCC's third attempt to create internet fast lanes. By May 2014, the FCC was considering two options: permitting fast and slow broadband lanes, thereby compromising net neutrality; or reclassifying broadband as a telecommunication service, thereby preserving net neutrality. Draft plans for the "fast-lane" option were approved, with 3 Democratic FCC commissioners voting to have the public review the proposal, and 2 Republican communications voting against public feedback.
The FCC's proposal was heavily criticized for its two-tier, preferential system, whose very core would go against the principle of net neutrality. The director of the Common Cause organization's Media and Democracy Reform Initiative compared the FCC proposal to "toll roads" that "represent Washington at its worst." A reporter for The Verge wrote that these regulations "would destroy net neutrality" precisely because it slowed down traffic. In response, Wheeler said that any statements saying that the proposed regulations would restrict the open Internet were "flat out wrong".'
|Last Week Tonight with John Oliver episode|
|Episode no.||Season 1|
Episode 5 (segment)
|Presented by||John Oliver|
|Original air date||June 1, 2014|
|Running time||13 minutes|
Oliver delivered his first 13-minute segment about net neutrality on June 1, 2014, as part of the day's main segment. He introduces the subject by praising "the internet, a.k.a. the electronic cat database," and noting how easy it is to buy merchandise such as coyote urine on the internet compared to if these items were bought in person. Oliver uses the coyote-urine analogy as a way to segue into a discussion of Wheeler's net-neutrality proposal. He pans "net neutrality" as a seemingly uninteresting topic, saying that videotaped FCC meetings about the issue might seem very boring "even by C-SPAN standards." Oliver then introduces the concept of net neutrality as something where all data is given the same priority regardless of its creator. He states that the Internet's relative equality, up to that point, had allowed startup companies to supersede bigger companies.
Oliver introduces the topic of how "the Internet is not broken, and the FCC is taking steps to fix that". The segment then displays some news clippings and broadcasts that explain the FCC's priority-lane proposal. Oliver returns onto the segment, and he protests vehemently against the proposed rules, jokingly stating that the rules would ensure "my startup video streaming service, Nutflix, a one-stop resource for videos of men getting hit in the nuts", would not be able to compete with larger companies like Netflix. He then takes a more serious approach, stating that the proposal would allow large ISPs such as Verizon and Comcast to buy the "fast-lane" data more easily compared to smaller ISPs with fewer funds. Oliver rebuts a telecommunication lawyer's claim that it would be a "fast-lane-versus-hyperspeed-lane" contrast, stating that the proposed rules were more comparable to Olympic gold medalist sprinter Usain Bolt versus "Usain bolted to an anchor".
The comedian refutes telecommunications companies' claims that they would not slow down other web traffic to get more internet users to subscribe to their services instead. Oliver points out an example in which Comcast slowed down Netflix download speeds in 2013 and 2014 unless Netflix paid Comcast a smooth-streaming fee. From October 2013 until Netflix finally agreed to pay in February 2014, Netflix download speeds for Comcast customers had slowed up to 25%, compared to on other ISPs where download speeds had consistently increased in the same time period. Oliver compared it to a "mob shakedown."
The comedian then says that the fight to keep net neutrality is so important that pro-net-neutrality activists are on the same side as corporations like Google, Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook, an alliance which Oliver describes as very unlikely. He compares this to Lex Luthor knocking on his nemesis Superman's apartment door for an offer to team up to "get rid of the asshole in apartment 3B". Oliver then says that the only entities that would benefit from the rule change were the cable companies who are lobbying Congress, including Comcast, who is the second-largest congressional lobbyist. Oliver says that President Barack Obama had been seen golfing with Comcast's CEO Brian Roberts, as well as invited Roberts to a fundraiser dinner. He also states that Obama's nomination of Tom Wheeler, a former cable and wireless lobbyist, for the FCC Chairman position was "the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo".
Oliver quotes a 2010 FCC report on broadband, which said that 96% of Americans have at most two wireless providers to choose from. The segment then displays a clip of Roberts saying that if Comcast were to merge with another major ISP like Time Warner, there would be no reduction in competition. Oliver responds, "you could not be describing a monopoly more clearly if you were wearing a metal top hat", a player token used in the game Monopoly. Then the segment shows a graphic of Ookla Speed Test that shows a list of countries, sorted by their average broadband speed. The U.S., ranking 31st on the list, had an average speed slower than Estonia, a country Oliver described as "still worried about Shrek attacks". Oliver goes on to point out that Comcast and Time Warner had the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any corporation in America, according to the quarterly American Customer Satisfaction Index that was released two weeks prior to the segment. He says that ISPs were not being truthful when they said they are committed to an open internet, and that representatives for the ISPs describe their plans in such a boring way that it goes unnoticed by many Americans. Oliver quips, "The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring", comparing it to Apple Inc. putting Mein Kampf inside their user agreement.
At the end of the segment, Oliver displays the web address for the FCC's comment section. He delivers an exhortation toward "the Internet commenters out there", saying that "we need you to get out there and, for once in your life, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction. Seize your moment, my lovely trolls, turn on caps lock, and fly my pretties! Fly! Fly!"
The YouTube segment received 800,000 views in two days, while the TV broadcast saw over 1 million views. The segment was thought to spur over 45,000 comments on the FCC's electronic filing page about the net neutrality proposal. The FCC also received an extra 300,000 comments in an email inbox designated specifically for the proposal. By comparison, the proposal with the second highest number of comments had 2,000 such responses. The day after the episode, the FCC comment page experienced a surge in traffic. Shortly after the first segment aired, the FCC website crashed, and Last Week Tonight viewers noted that the website's commenting function was not working. A spokeswoman for the FCC said that it was "unclear if the high volume was directly related to the John Oliver segment".
Bloomberg News wrote that even though the segment was only a small part of the net-neutrality debate, as compared to the electronic mailing lists convincing tens of millions of people to vote against the proposed rules, it "gave a bump to a political movement" and ultimately helped to reverse the FCC's position in regards to net neutrality. Soraya Nadia McDonald of The Washington Post stated that Oliver "may be just the firebrand activist we’re looking for" in regards to the net-neutrality debate. Terrance F. Ross of The Atlantic wrote, "John Oliver’s segment on net neutrality this past June perfectly summed up what his HBO show Last Week Tonight is so good at: transcending apathy."
Not all commentators had positive reviews of the segment. Jon Healey of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "Oliver misled his audience badly on a couple of key points", saying that the federal courts would not allow the FCC to unfairly discriminate between different forms of web traffic; that large ISPs would not need the new rules to implement a speed-tiered system; and that Wheeler had left open the possibility of outlawing the ISPs' promotion of certain websites for a fee. He stated that in the case of Netflix versus Comcast, the problem had been a third-party transit provider who had argued with Comcast over the price and amount of data that the ISP would provide. Robert McMillan of Wired said that "complaints about a fast-lane don't make much sense" because large websites like Google and Facebook already benefited from "fast lanes", albeit in the form of large servers embedded in the ISPs' Internet exchange points. He wrote that instead of advocating against a change that had already occurred, internet users should look for ways to increase ISPs' competitiveness.
Chairman Wheeler himself responded to the segment, praising it as "creative" but saying "I am not a dingo". Wheeler said, "I think that it represents the high level of interest that exists in the topic in the country, and that's good." However, he also stated that the segment did not talk about the FCC's plan to reinstate the open-internet protections that had been halted in an appeals court earlier that year.
The University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication conducted a study in which it concluded that viewers of late-night shows were generally more informed about the net neutrality issue than regular cable news viewers. The study found that knowledge of the net neutrality debate was highest among Last Week Tonight viewers and lowest among Fox News viewers. According to the study, 74% of Last Week Tonight watchers heard about net neutrality, of which 29% who heard "a lot" about the issue, compared to 52% of Fox News watchers, only 7% of which heard "a lot".
The "Net Neutrality" segment increased Last Week Tonight's viewership to approximately 4 million per episode by the end of the first season, and contributed to its popularity in U.S. late-night television. In November 2014, after the season had ended, David Carr of The New York Times wrote that the show had become "a smash" since the segment first aired. Carr stated that the "Net Neutrality" segment had helped convince FCC leadership to support net neutrality.
Effect on net-neutrality debate
In September 2014, the Pew Research Center found that the FCC filing page received 3,076 comments the week before the June 1 segment, and that there were another 79,838 comments posted the week immediately afterward. Google searches for the term "net neutrality" rose in popularity that week compared to the previous and following weeks. Two interns analyzing the data for the Pew Research Center wrote that the sudden rise in the number of comments on the FCC net-neutrality page could not be attributed to cable or printed news media, since these outlets' coverage of net neutrality was more infrequent than in previous weeks. Ultimately, less than 1 percent of the proposal's total 800,000 comments could be classified as "clearly opposed to net neutrality", with the majority either indicating support, taking no particular position, or being irrelevant comments.
The Verge later requested that the FCC publish emails related to the Last Week Tonight episode under the Freedom of Information Act. Of the emails that were released, most were positively critical of the video. In one exchange, a CBS executive sent a link to FCC employees, who joked about "Nutflix" and Usain Bolt. One of the FCC employees said, "We had a good laugh about it. The cable companies... not so much." When one reporter satirically asked if Chairman Wheeler commented on the "dingo" quip, an FCC spokesperson said "Hey John, no, no comment on that" with a smiley emoticon. This prompted Oliver to create a subsequent video parodying the FCC's response.
A Twitter policy spokesman said, "We all agreed that John Oliver’s brilliant net neutrality segment explained a very complex policy issue in a simple, compelling way that had a wider reach than many expensive advocacy campaigns."
On February 26, 2015, the FCC voted to apply the "common carrier" designation of the Communications Act of 1934 and Section 706 of the Telecommunications act of 1996 to the internet. The decision was driven partly because most Americans only had one high-speed internet provider available in their areas. On the same day, the FCC also voted to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that limited the ability of local governments in those states to provide broadband services to potential customers outside of their service areas. While the latter ruling affected only those two states, the FCC indicated that the agency would make similar rulings if it received petitions from localities in other states. In response to ISPs and opponents, FCC Chairman Wheeler said, "This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concept." On March 12, 2015, the FCC released the specific details of its new net neutrality rules, which included prohibiting content blocking, slower connections to websites, and "fast and slow lanes". It was thought that Oliver's segment had a major role in the decision, which was the opposite of the FCC's original "lane" proposal. On April 13, 2015, the final rule was published.
"Net Neutrality II"
|"Net Neutrality II"|
|Last Week Tonight with John Oliver episode|
|Episode no.||Season 4|
Episode 11 (segment)
|Presented by||John Oliver|
|Original air date||May 7, 2017|
|Running time||19 minutes|
Updates since "Net Neutrality"
After Donald Trump won the United States presidential election of 2016, he appointed Republican FCC board member Ajit V. Pai as chairman of the FCC. Pai announced proposals to scrap Title II shortly after his appointment on the grounds that higher regulation of the internet led to decreased business. This marked a turnaround from the previous FCC's position under Chairman Wheeler. In May 2017, the FCC successfully voted to proceed with a plan to remove the net neutrality rules enacted under the Obama administration. Like the 2014 proposal vote, this vote was also partisan, with one Democratic board member opposing the removal and two Republicans supporting it.
Oliver starts by introducing the Internet, "the repository of all human knowledge and videos of goats singing Taylor Swift songs". He describes his previous "Net Neutrality I" episode and its aftermath. Afterward, Oliver describes the reason for his second episode: the Trump administration is rolling back Obama-era regulations, including Wheeler's net-neutrality rules. The comedian says, "I genuinely would not be surprised if one night Trump went on TV just to tell us that he personally killed every [Thanksgiving] turkey Obama ever pardoned".
Oliver shows a clip of YouTube personality Tay Zonday, who summarizes the concept of net neutrality. Zonday says that under net neutrality laws, ISPs have to treat all web traffic the same, and as an example, he says that an ISP cannot favor one search engine by slowing down traffic that uses other search engines. After the clip ends, Oliver paraphrases what Zonday just said: that under the concept of net neutrality, ISPs cannot impact or restrict people's online actions, and big companies cannot prevent competition from small companies. Oliver says that in the case of the latter, "Ancestry.com could easily crush my new site JustTellMeIfImRelatedToANazi.com. It's like ancestry.com except you get to skip all the bullshit." He then notes that major ISPs like Charter, Cox, and Comcast have all published statements that endorsed "a free and open internet", and that Verizon even made a video explaining that the change would "put the open Internet rules in an enforceable way on a different legal footing".
The comedian next explains Titles I and II of the Communications Act of 1934; the ruling provided by Comcast v. FCC; and Pai's appointment by President Trump. Oliver says that based on this context, Verizon's bid for a "different legal footing" was akin to "O. J. Simpson asking why you won't let him hold any of your samurai swords". He continues that the new FCC chairman's promise that the current rules' "days were numbered" and his vow to "take a weed whacker" to the current rules was like "serial killer talk". Pai's easygoing attitude, casual quotations of The Big Lebowski on his Twitter account, and affinity for his large Reese's-branded coffee mug made him personable, and according to Oliver, even more dangerous. Oliver says that Pai is a former lawyer for Verizon who has said that "we were not living in some digital dystopia before the partisan imposition of a massive plan hatched in Washington saved all of us", to which the comedian adds, "Except for Pizza Rat".
Oliver then takes a serious tone, saying that reclassification of ISPs was the only way to regulate them, and points out that Pai had erroneously said that there is no evidence of throttling by cable companies. Oliver refutes Pai's statement with a Bloomberg News article about how Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile had blocked their respective subscribers from accessing Google Wallet on their phones because it competed with their Isis Mobile Wallet service. The comedian subsequently lampoons the wallet's name because of its resemblance to the name of the terror group ISIS.
The comedian says that Pai has also proposed "laughably lacking" alternatives to net neutrality. One alternative stipulated that ISPs simply include a voluntary statement in their terms of service indicating that they would not throttle or block content, which Oliver says would "make net neutrality as binding as a proposal on The Bachelor". Pai's other rationales for reclassifying ISPs was that the new rules already resulted in decreased investment in broadband networks. Brian Schatz, a Democratic U.S. Senator representing Hawaii and the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, said that Pai's claim of decreased investment was untrue. Oliver then quotes a 2014 phone call from Francis J. Shammo, the chief financial officer of Verizon, in which the latter says that the new net-neutrality rules did not affect Verizon's business. Oliver says, "that doesn't really sound like net neutrality was jeopardizing investment at all". He states that Pai's actions to eliminate Title II are like "pouring [a gallon of coffee] into your hands and trusting that you don't get burnt". At this point, Oliver holds up a Reese's mug that is even larger than Pai's mug and says, "I'm drinking the blood of smaller mugs".
The ISPs' position on the net neutrality issue is that protections could be retained by an Act of Congress, but Oliver says that he does not trust Congress to go through. He also expresses distrust of President Trump, who had claimed that Obama's net-neutrality protections would "target conservative media", when in fact, that could only be achieved by the opposite scenario: a lack of net-neutrality protections. At the end of the segment, Oliver urges viewers to go to GoFCCYourself.com, a website redirecting to the specific FCC proposal. He says, "Every Internet group needs to come together like you successfully did three years ago … gamers; YouTube celebrities; Instagram models; Tom from MySpace, if you’re still alive. We need all of you. You cannot say you are too busy when 540,000 of you commented on Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement", referencing a viral post from the singer Beyoncé from earlier that year.
Effects and reception
Oliver's segment was thought to have caused viewers to submit an extra 150,000 comments on the net neutrality proposal. As with the previous Net Neutrality segment, the FCC site was thought to have crashed temporarily as a result of the surge in commenting. However, the FCC later stated that the site was unavailable due to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that were unrelated to the Oliver segments. HBO also denied having initiated the DDoS attacks. Engadget noted that apart from the specific page about the net-neutrality proposal, the rest of the FCC site was working at normal speeds. Several Congressional Democrats doubted that the cause of the FCC website's outage was a DDoS attack, and they called on the FCC to investigate the issue. BuzzFeed journalist Kevin Collier filed a lawsuit against the FCC after it refused to publish data related to the outage under the Freedom of Information Act.
In response to the segment, Ajit Pai made a video in which he read and responded to mean tweets about himself in the style of a Jimmy Kimmel Live! "Mean Tweets" segment. Pai read several tweets that mentioned several things that John Oliver had talked about in "Net Neutrality II", such as The Big Lebowski quotes and the Reese's mug, but he did not read any tweets referring to net neutrality itself. Gizmodo criticized Pai's appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, saying that he refused to debate Oliver's points and instead "addresses a bunch of Twitter eggs", anonymous user profiles, "with the implication that anyone who opposes his cash grab for corporations is a moron".
In a segment posted only on YouTube the following week, Oliver talks about an update at the FCC. He describes how gofccyourself.com started trending on Twitter after the Net Neutrality II segment aired. Ultimately, the FCC website got 1.6 million extra comments as a result of the segment. Oliver shows a video of a news anchor describing this fact while using an image of Stephen Colbert, another comedian.
Oliver then reads off a comment from a person claiming to be from the International Space Station who complained about his porn website access being interrupted, to which he responds, "There is no one up there who has any use for porn, and I'll tell you why: they are way too busy space fucking". He also noted that several comments were using fake names like Homer Simpson, Barack Obama, and Michael Jackson, then said that "Michael Jackson" is a very common name, although one commenter writing under that name had listed an address of "420 Buthole st"—a reference to cannabis culture and posteriors. Oliver describes that some media had doubts about this net-neutrality drive, with one news anchor alleging that there were 128,000 spambot comments with fake names. He then says that some of the comments were racist, saying, "Let me just say, if any of those came from anyone who watches this show, stop it! Writing racist things on the Internet is not how you win the net neutrality debate, it's how you win the presidency." The comedian concludes by calling on viewers to refrain from adding any more comments, since the FCC stopped taking any comments a week before their May 18 vote on the issue.
Commenting period closes and FCC votes
As a result of the surge in comments, the public commenting period was extended by two weeks to August 30. A poll in mid-August found that 60% of Americans supported the rules while 17% opposed them. The ratio of support was consistent for voters from both the Democratic and Republican parties.
By the time the commenting period closed, the FCC had received 22 million comments on the issue, which was the highest amount of comments for any FCC proposal to date. However, this included over 1 million comments from a spambot, most of which were made in support of the proposal to repeal net neutrality. One estimate placed the total of fake comments in excess of 7 million, using variations from seven email templates. The fake emails used duplicate and temporary email addresses, submitted under names such as "The Internet", and at one point, 500,000 comments were sent in the span of a single second. Because the legitimacy of so many of the comments was questioned, the FCC considered disregarding every comment. Following this revelation, Pai refused to investigate the fake comments, so New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman set up his own webpage to help the public determine whether their names and information were used in any of the fake comments.
Despite the 22 million comments, the FCC announced plans to repeal net neutrality anyway in November 2017. After this announcement, several news media made references to the John Oliver segments about the issue. On December 14, 2017, the FCC voted in favor of repealing these policies.
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