Net Neutrality Under Review

Comedian John Oliver has again taken up the cause of net neutrality. On the most recent episode of HBO's "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," he urged viewers to make public comments on the FCC's plans to roll back net neutrality provisions. During the show, Oliver discussed the issues surrounding net neutrality and the FCC's new plans, and then he provided a URL for viewers to visit: The site redirects to the FCC's comment page for its “Restoring Internet Freedom” proposal, and the "express" function allows the visitor to easily leave a comment.

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On Sunday night, the FCC's site was down, and some users were unable to leave comments at all. Many assumed it was the result of so many comments being left at once — as was the case when Oliver spoke out in support of net neutrality in 2014 — but according to the FCC, this downtime was caused by deliberate denial-of-service (DDos) attacks that appeared to be intended to disrupt the comment process.

Either version of events supports the idea that public outcry is powerful. If comments shut down the site, that is notable, and if someone cared enough to make sure people couldn't make comments, that is also noteworthy.

The “Restoring Internet Freedom” measure would roll back the classification of the internet as a public utility. Critics of this measure argue that it will harm net neutrality and benefit large corporations over all other users. “It would put consumers at the mercy of phone and cable companies,” Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a consumer advocacy group, told The New York Times. “In a fantasy world, all would be fine with a pinkie swear not to interrupt pathways and portals to the internet despite a history of doing that.”

Google and Netflix, who have been among the most active supporters of net neutrality, have not commented individually about the proposal, but their trade group, the Internet Association, has spoken out against it. “Rolling back these rules or reducing the legal sustainability of the order will result in a worse internet for consumers and less innovation online,” Michael Beckerman, chief executive of the Internet Association, said in a statement.

When Public Action Works

This isn't the first time Oliver has successfully tackled this issue. In 2014, his broadcast discussion of net neutrality prompted a petition signed by more than four million people and much more vocal, broad-based support for net neutrality measures. In fact, Oliver's approach with net neutrality is an example of how effective mobilizing public support around a political issue can be.

"The entire purpose of this process is to get public input." – FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

In a recent interview with FCC chairman Ajit Pai, Maggie Reardon of CNET pointed out that the last time net neutrality was under discussion, the FCC received in excess of four million comments, overwhelmingly supporting the principle. She asked Pai if he would change his mind if the same thing happened this time. Here is Pai's response:

As I've said, we have an open mind. That's the reason that we call it a notice of proposed rule-making. It's not a decree. The entire purpose of this process is to get public input. Then, after the record is closed, we apply what the DC Circuit calls a 'substantial evidence test.' We look through the record, figure out what the right course is based on facts in the record. Then we make the appropriate judgment. I don't have any predetermined views as to where we're going to go. That's the reason why we have an Administrative Procedure Act and an independent agency like the FCC that's committed to following that Act.

If what he says is accurate, public input may once again prove to be very persuasive in the FCC's decision-making process. However, according to The New York Times, Pai has also said, “Make no mistake about it: This is a fight that we intend to wage and it is a fight that we are going to win.” Clearly, every comment will count as the future of the free internet is decided in the coming months.

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