Can John Oliver Force the FCC's Hand on Net Neutrality?

The comedy host delivered a rant that showed how the government commission might not be operating in the public's best interest.

Jun 5, 2014 at 1:28PM

Comedian John Oliver unloaded on the Federal Communications Commission's handling of net neutrality on the June 1 edition of his weekly Last Week Tonight program on HBO. 

In his well-written rant on the subject, the former Daily Show fill-in host explained that cable companies were pushing the FCC to create slow and fast lanes for the Internet. They were succeeding, he explained, because they managed to make the topic so boring that most news media has been ignoring it. (Not us here at the Fool -- Jason Hellmann and I covered it on a recent edition of the Business Take videocast.) 

"The Internet in its current form is not broken and the FCC is currently taking steps to fix that," Oliver said.

He managed to not only explain why maintaining net neutrality matters, but also to show how devious the efforts have been to change the idea that all Internet traffic must be treated equally. He pointed out that current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler once headed lobbying efforts for the cable industry. The host likened that to hiring a dingo to babysit your infant. He also detailed how a number of companies that are often at odds with each other are vehemently opposed to the FCC's proposed changes.

"It's not just anti-corporate hippies who think that abandoning net neutrality is a bad idea," Oliver explained before running a video package that showed how in addition to activists, companies including Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) all support maintaining complete net neutrality. "What's being proposed is so egregious activists and corporations have been forced onto the same side. That's basically Lex Luthor knocking on Superman's apartment door and going 'Listen, I know we have our differences, but we have got to get rid of that ****hole  in apartment 3B."    

What is net neutrality

Often called open Internet, net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers are not allowed to discriminate against types of Internet traffic by intentionally slowing them down.

"Companies that provide Internet services should treat all lawful Internet content in a neutral manner. It is the founding principle of the Internet and what allows the Internet to be the largest and most diverse platform for expression in recent history," according to InternetSociety.org

That was the law of the land until January when a federal court overturned the FCC's rules that maintained net neutrality. 

What the FCC wants to do

The FCC -- almost certainly at the behest of cable companies and other Internet service providers -- wants to allow ISPs to charge companies for providing higher content delivery speeds. The commission's proposal includes the provision that the Internet providers can't discriminate in making those deals. Instead they must offer the same terms to all companies on "commercially reasonable" terms. Of course commercially reasonable is an undefinable gray area. It could allow a deal with a large company that pays millions in a flat fee, which can't be offered to a smaller competitor because it could never afford to pay.

If this proposal happens it could ruin the democratic nature of the Internet where anyone with a dream can try to build the next Google. If the FCC's rules pass it would essentially create an Internet elite that could pay for high-speed service while lesser companies would be left with whatever service the ISPs give them. It's worth noting that that type of two-tiered system would make creating the next Netflix, Facebook, Google, or Amazon much harder, yet all those companies oppose the FCC's proposal.

A call for action

Oliver closed the segment by addressing Internet commenters directly: "Good evening, monsters," he began, before asking them to contact the FCC directly to protest the rules. That move led to a large enough volume of responses that it crashed the FCC website, according to posts from the commission's official Twitter feed.

What Oliver has done is use comedy to shed light on an attempt by a federal agency to do something that in no way benefits the American people other than the ones who run cable companies and Internet service providers. It's hard to see how there is any public benefit to Netflix being forced to make deals with companies including Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) -- which it has already done -- to pay so its customers can have a decent experience streaming videos.

If the current proposal passes consumers will bear the brunt of it. We will pay for Internet access, pay for subscription-based streaming services, and then have the cost of those services paying for fast lane access passed back on to us in one form or another. The FCC should be protecting the best interests of the American people, not those of the companies that spend the most on lobbying. It's amazing that it took a British comedian to point that out, but perhaps now that the topic has been made less boring the U.S. citizenry will demand the FCC changes its proposed policy.  

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Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com, Facebook, Google (C shares), and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com, Facebook, Google (C shares), and Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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