Where John Oliver Wins on Net Neutrality and Where He Fails

Created: 05 June, 2014
Updated: 14 October, 2022
4 min read


"Net neutrality. The only two words that promise more boredom in the English language are, 'featuring Sting.'"

While this is just one of a few humorous one liners from Oliver's segment on the topic, it is also true. Why are people not talking about net neutrality? The first reason is because many people don't really understand the issue at large. The second reason is because when people do try to explain it, they manage to make it the most boring subject imaginable, which is unfortunate, because as much as society depends on the Internet, the rules being proposed by the FCC should concern everyone.

During his HBO show, "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," Oliver managed to make the topic of net neutrality interesting for his audience, which is why shows formatted like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and Oliver's show can benefit national public discourse. Sure, they are comedy shows, but they raise important issues through comedic monologues, satire, and parody.

This is where John Oliver wins on the subject of net neutrality. He has peaked the viewer's interest in a subject that should matter to them greatly.

New rules being considered by the FCC would allow a two-tier system where internet service providers (ISPs) could charge tech companies to send content to consumers at faster speeds. Opponents say this creates an advantageous market to big companies like Comcast and Verizon, while completely eliminating competition from start-up companies who will not be able to afford faster speeds for consumers.

You see how boring that is? Imagine sitting in a FCC hearing where they actually go into specifics.

In other words, Comcast would charge Netflix a certain amount so that the company could allow consumers to stream high definition movies and TV shows at quicker speeds. Not only are there concerns with how this may eliminate competition in the market, but Oliver also raises another concern among supporters of net neutrality.

If ISPs are allowed to charge companies to access faster download speeds, it is possible for these providers to strong arm companies by intentionally slowing the download speeds available to them until they agree to pay for faster speeds. To illustrate how real this concern is, Oliver offered an example.

While Comcast and Netflix were in negotiations, a graph (shown in the video above) shows that Netflix download speeds plummeted. They didn't just decline a little bit; it was practically a free fall until Netflix and Comcast came to an agreement. This type of tactic, as John Oliver noted, is the equivalent of a "mob shakedown."

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"Oh Netflix, nice show about life in a lady's prison. Such a shame if there was going to be something happened to your connection there," Oliver said in a stereotypical gangster voice.

Yet, this kind of "mob shakedown" exists in a market where there are currently no regulations on the practice of charging tech companies for faster broadband connection speeds. Previous attempts by the FCC to preserve complete net neutrality have been thrown out in federal court, so what regulations can the FCC pass that will survive judicial scrutiny? The failure to address this question is part of where Oliver fails on net neutrality.

That being said, advocates of net neutrality have the deck stacked against them, as Oliver gets into when he discusses just how big of an influence cable companies have on the government. The cable company lobby is right up there with defense technology companies like Northrop Grumman. The fact that Comcast is right underneath Northrop Grumman is difficult to swallow.

Also, the FCC is just another major example of the revolving door that exists with top lobbyists for commercial industries and the federal agencies charged with regulating those industries. Tom Wheeler, chair of the FCC, was a chief lobbyist for cable and wireless providers before being appointed to his position by President Barack Obama.

So, consumers cannot really trust the FCC to pass regulations that are in their best interest.

It's not easy, but an increased desire by major cable and Internet providers to have a two-tier or even multi-tier market for providing broadband connection will destroy any hopes at maintaining a free and open Internet. So, some regulations are needed, even if they do not go as far as net neutrality advocates want because federal courts are not allowing what some people want.

In a passionate plea to the hardcore Internet commenters -- the Internet trolls, if you will -- John Oliver invited people to flood the FCC's website with comments as the commission has invited the public to give their opinion on the new proposed rules before taking further action. The next day, the FCC site was overloaded with comments and crashed.

Since then, news sites and sources have talked more about how much responsibility Oliver should take for the crash than how he chose to cover the issue. So, while he got people to talk about net neutrality, the discussion has steered away from what was actually said during his segment to focus on what impact he may or may not have had on the FCC website being down temporarily.

If people overlook the reasonable arguments against the FCC proposal and focus only on the troll comments, it takes away from the net neutrality cause, and FCC officials would not need much more of an excuse to just ignore the comments altogether. To be fair, there was nothing stopping that to begin with.

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