In Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver made an impassioned plea to protect net neutrality and urged his fans to visit the FCC website and post comments in support of it. Shortly thereafter, the FCC’s website went down. Here’s five facts you need to know about the matter:
1. This was not the First Time Oliver Spoke in Favor of Net Neutrality
In June 2014, Last Week Tonight did an episode about net neutrality (embedded above) which resulted in a record-breaking 4 million comments being directed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Last Week Tonight’s YouTube description of the episode said “Cable companies are trying to create an unequal playing field for internet speeds, but they’re doing it so boringly that most news outlets aren’t covering it.
John Oliver explains the controversy and lets viewers know how they can voice their displeasure to the FCC.”
Regarding the “boring” coverage most news outlets gave the subject, Oliver in 2014 said, “Yes. ‘Net neutrality,’ the only two words that promise more boredom in the English language are ‘featuring Sting.’ And hearing people talk about it is somehow even worse.” The clip then goes to a clip from CSPAN showing a man offering the following eye-glazing commentary: “As anticipated, the notice proposes to ground the net neutrality rules in section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.” Back to Oliver: “Oh my God that is the most boring thing I’ve ever seen.”
In Sunday’s updated look at net neutrality, Last Week Tonight’s YouTube page explained that “Equal access to online information is once again under serious threat. John Oliver encourages internet commenters to voice their displeasure to the FCC by visiting http://www.gofccyourself.com and clicking “express” to file your comment.” The GoFCCYourself web address redirects to the FCC’s website.
2. Net Neutrality Essentially Holds Internet Providers to the Same Rules as Telephone Companies
Back in 2007, when “network neutrality” was first being debated, Google’s Public Policy Blog published a post defining the issue as “the concept that the Internet should remain free and open to all comers.”
This is pretty much how telephone companies have been required to treat subscribers. Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, offered an analogy of what telephone calls would be like if phone companies enjoyed the same anti-neutrality rules which net neutrality opponents want Internet service providers to have: “Imagine if you tried to order a pizza and the phone company said AT&T’s preferred pizza vendor is Domino’s. Press one to connect to Domino’s now. If you would still like to order from your neighborhood pizzeria, please hold for three minutes while Domino’s guaranteed orders are placed.”
In 2015, the FCC under then-President Obama passed “Open Internet” rules. But Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman under President Trump (and a former lawyer for Verizon), wants to rescind “Open Internet” regulations, saying they “had harmful effects on the marketplace” because they discourage investment in ISPs.
3. The FCC Says Its Website Problems Came From DDoS Attacks Rather Than Oliver’s Fans
In 2014, after Oliver urged Last Week Tonight viewers to visit the FCC website and post comments in support of net neutrality, the website crashed due to its inability to handle the huge volume of traffic. The same thing apparently happened on Sunday night after Oliver repeated his plea from three years before.
But on Monday, the FCC said the problem was not due to a large volume of pro-net-neutrality commenters visiting its website all at once, but instead blamed the website crash on distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.
In a formal statement released on May 8, the FCC said “Beginning on Sunday night at midnight, our analysis reveals that the FCC was subject to multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks. These were deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system. These actors were not attempting to file comments themselves; rather they made it difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC. While the comment system remained up and running the entire time, these DDoS events tied up the servers and prevented them from responding to people attempting to submit comments. We have worked with our commercial partners to address this situation and will continue to monitor developments going forward.”
4. Ajit Pai Says He Wants to Return to 1990s Internet Rules
In an interview with CNET, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he wants to rescind current Internet regulations, which treat the Internet as a utility, and return to the looser standards of Bill Clinton’s presidency:
“I haven’t made any predetermined judgment, that’s the entire purpose of this proceeding, to start this conversation with the American public. I’ve been pretty consistent about my view that I favor a free and open internet. I’ve said that the Clinton era approach worked really well. At the dawn of the internet age, President Clinton and a Republican Congress had a pretty fundamental choice to make. Are we going to treat this new technology as we do the water company or the electric company or Ma Bell from the 1930s? And they made a very conscious decision not to do that, because they thought consumers would be better off if they had a marketplace that could evolve without these heavy-handed regulations.”
Of course, net neutrality advocates could counter than during the Clinton era, the then-new Internet was still a luxury one could easily choose to do without, whereas a reliable Internet connection is pretty much a necessity for anyone wishing to participate in today’s economy. CNET also asked Pai “What would you say to folks who think you’ve been too cozy with broadband companies? They say your efforts to roll back the previous FCC’s privacy rules, and killing the cable set-top box rules, have been gifts to the broadband companies.”
Pai responded: “On set-top boxes, I would suggest that people ask former [FCC] Commissioner [Jessica] Rosenworcel. There was a bipartisan resistance to the then-chairman’s proposal to essentially double down on 1990s technology. … Broadband deployment is a bipartisan issue. I’ve consistently worked with Democrats and Republicans. On issues like broadband, at the end of the day what delivers value for the consumer is better, faster, cheaper internet. I’m committed to using the tools in the FCC’s toolbox to deliver on that promise.”
5. Pai Seeks to Make Net Neutrality Voluntary Rather Than Mandatory
The “Net neutrality” rules which the FCC passed in 2015 could more accurately be called “common carrier” rules, because what the ruling actually did was reclassify ISPs as “common carriers” similar to telephone companies.
Going back to Craig Newmark’s analogy about the phone company putting calls to Domino’s Pizza through immediately while calls to the local mom-and-pop pizzeria have to wait: that would be illegal under common carrier rules, which require the phone company to treat all calls equally. (Granted, it’s still quite possible for calls to the local pizzeria to be put on hold, but only because the pizzeria is too busy to take the call right away, not because the phone company is waiting to put the call through.)
In Internet terms, “net neutrality” or common carrier status means ISPs must treat any attempt to visit Domino’s website the same as attempts to visit the local pizzeria’s website, rather than deliberately slow traffic or connection times to local sites.
However, the FCC’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” proposal from April 27 supports “ending public-utility regulation of the internet,” among other things.
Reuters reported on April 6 that Pai wants to rescind common carrier status mandating ISPs to treat all content equally, in lieu of having internet providers voluntarily agree to treat all content equally. Reuters also noted that “It is unclear if regulators could legally compel internet providers to adopt open internet principles without existing net neutrality rules.”