Net Neutrality, John Oliver, And The FCC: What You Need To Know

Net neutrality has been making the tech news headlines frequently, but most consumers don’t know much about it. At least they didn’t until John Oliver went on a rant several days ago.

On Sunday night, the former Daily Show “newscaster” and comedian went off for 13 minutes about net neutrality on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. His rant ended with a call to action: “Seize your moment, my lovely trolls!”

Basically, he asked everyone everywhere to hang up the Internet and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by letting them know just how bad their recent net neutrality proposals are—and people did. By Monday afternoon, the FCC’s public commenting system was essentially shut down by heavy comment traffic. The agency tweeted that it was having “technical difficulties” thanks to heavy traffic impacting its servers.

FCC net neutrality tweet

What’s heavy for the FCC? Before now, the most action any FCC measure any saw was not quite 2,000 formal comments from the public. In late April, the agency set up an inbox just for comments on its net neutrality proposals alone, and it has gotten 300,000 emails there so far. Since May 15 they’ve received in excess of 45,000 comments, and the period for comments runs through June 27.

Why does everyone care so much—and why should you? Net neutrality issues effect the way you use the Internet every day. Basically, net neutrality means that Internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon must treat all traffic large and small the same way. So even if a site like Netflix generates enormous amounts of traffic and gluts the network (and at times it does), service providers aren’t supposed to divert traffic around them.

Netflix net neutrality image

This may seem like a business versus business debate that you don’t care much about, but think again. Part of the FCC’s proposed changes would allow Internet service providers to charge more for “fast lanes” online. Of course if Netflix pays more, so will you, but what about small companies like startups? They just won’t be able to afford that kind of cost, and it means that bigger companies will be controlling what everyone views online.

An FCC official has confirmed that the chairman does not support paid prioritization, but critics of the proposals indicate that this kind of prioritization will be possible if the changes go through as they are now. Many policy advocates and lawmakers are also concerned that the Internet should be treated as a utility, just as phone service is now. If it is, it will be more heavily regulated and service providers will reportedly not be permitted to profit from it in as many ways.

Oliver focused much of his quips on the fact that the FCC itself is composed largely of regulators who were once in the business themselves.

“The guy who used to run with the cable industry’s lobbying arm is now tasked with the agency tasked with regulating it. That is the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.”