John Oliver Changed Tom Wheeler’s Mind on Net Neutrality

Net neutrality has become one of those hotly debated topics, much like health care. Opinions are sharply divided along party lines and each side feels inclined to attack the other side’s opinion as ignorant or reckless.

Many opponents of net neutrality say President Barack Obama was the reason the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) reclassified the Internet under Title II of the Communications Act. But was he? Or, was there someone else who may have played a larger role than people realize?

Before we dig into the timeline of events, allow me to give a quick overview for late comers to the net neutrality party.

FCC Chair Tom Wheeler proposed two net neutrality rules, one in 2014 and the one passed on February 26. The most commonly identified difference between the two plans was the existence of a two-tier system under the first proposal — two different “lanes of speed,” if you will.

The plan in 2014 said providers could offer premium services to companies, such as Netflix, for faster speeds. These speeds would be above the normal speed of your everyday household-managed blog.

The protest against this proposal suggested that the Internet needed to remain a level playing field. If large and well-established companies could pay for premium services that a new Internet start-up could not afford, it would give the larger companies an unfair advantage.

This is the grievance the recently passed net neutrality rule seemingly addresses. The FCC has ensured the public that its regulations will ban paid prioritization. The two-lane proposal in 2014 is a thing of the past.

Now that we are on the same page, let’s take a gander at the timeline.

Media coverage several weeks before successful passage of net neutrality indicated that Tom Wheeler had a change of heart when President Obama “influenced” Wheeler to make net neutrality a reality, but this claim has reason to be called into question.

Wheeler was working on a new net neutrality proposal before Obama came out in support of Title II reclassification in November 2014. However, there is no clear indication on when Wheeler made the complete switch from advocating a two-tier market only to no paid prioritization at all.

What is clear, however, is that Wheeler began making changes to his net neutrality proposal after the FCC site was flooded with millions of comments urging the commission to adopt rules that would keep the Internet free and open, encourage competition, and protect consumers.

During a June 2014 episode of his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, comedian John Oliver revealed a few shocking details about the FCC, the state of net neutrality, and the mob-like strategies of Internet service providers to get companies to pay more money.

Two facts in particular stuck out the most:

  1. Tom Wheeler, before his appointment to the FCC, was a lead lobbyist for cable providers.
  2. Internet service providers purposefully slow down internet connection speeds of companies from whom they desire more money.

The shock value of these facts were harnessed by Oliver to inspire those watching to comment on the FCC’s website. He even provided the link to the comment page to make it easier for viewers to navigate the site. In the following days, millions of comments were left opposing Wheeler’s initial proposal and supporting tougher net neutrality rules.

This was months before the president came out in support of Title II reclassification.

If Oliver’s call to action and his viewers’ subsequent compliance are responsible for changing Wheeler’s mind on net neutrality, then the power of democracy is revealed to still be firmly planted in the collective voice of the people. It would suggest that a united voice is more powerful than the President of the United States.

How much of an impact did the people have on changing Wheeler's mind?