What John Oliver won’t tell you about net neutrality

A few years ago, Jon Stewart went on CNN’s Crossfire and shocked hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala with the accusation, “you’re hurting America.” (In fairness, calling Carlson by a profane word probably didn’t help either.)

Stewart touched a nerve – cable infotainment is just too much distortion, demagoguery and spin. (And that’s not even counting when they air Trump’s tweets.) It makes genuine debate impossible by endlessly questioning motives rather than testing arguments. It creates phony drama by treating minor disagreements as world ending clashes. When 60 percent of Americans cite TV as their main source of information, this is a problem.

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Stewart’s protégé John Oliver is expected to take to the airwaves on Sunday to reprise his epic 2014 coverage of the net neutrality debate. Oliver wowed the nation back then weaving a complicated policy issue into an accessible, hysterical video spot. The piece earned 13 million views and was cited by then FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler as a turning point. Which is a pretty big compliment from a guy you called a dingo on TV.

 

Less well remembered – the piece also misstated and distorted the issue. Jon Healy, a net neutrality supporter at the LA Times, wrote “There was a grain of truth to his narrative, but Oliver misled his audience badly on a couple of key points.” Writer Dan Seitz complained Oliver was “targeting the wrong people and the wrong issue.”

Oliver focused on a supposed telecom plot to divide the internet into fast and slow lanes, but the truth is there are no slow lanes at all on the internet anymore; we are entering the “gigabit era.” He accused one provider of a “shaking down” Netflix with slower service during connection negotiations but it turned out “Netflix had fatally misread the data” and its claims were simply false. (Indeed, this time around Netflix is staying on the sidelines and says repeal of net neutrality won’t affect its operations at all.)

Now John Oliver runs a comedy show, not hard news. And I am not saying it should be held to the same standards as CNN. But at the same time, there’s just no denying reality. Oliver is trying to shape and influence a real political debate. After all, it’s no accident that after saying nothing about this issue for the last two years he is speaking up now, when the subject is back at the FCC. 

So when you watch John Oliver, laugh away. But watch out for whoppers or spin and as well. Here’s a few I’ll be watching for:

Net Neutrality or “Title II”? Net neutrality – and its mythology of fast lanes and shakedowns – makes for good TV. Arcane questions about administrative law do not. But the entire debate that is underway today is actually about a narrow question of only the legal authority for net neutrality – it’s not “Should we have net neutrality?” but “What is the best legal authority for net neutrality?” Oliver will almost certainly gloss over that key distinction and spin this as a TWICE IN A LIFETIME fight for the soul of the Internet. Good for ratings, bad for policy.

Who Supports Net Neutrality? Big Cable makes a perfect TV villain but the problem is Big Cable is actually Big Net Neutrality Supporter too. All of the major internet providers unambiguously support net neutrality. It is true they oppose the current “Title II” regulatory structure – the issue Oliver is likely to ignore – because it erects major barriers to new investment and innovation and requires government “permission slips” for internet providers before they can roll out new competitive services. The big Silicon Valley companies aren’t shackled with those requirements and largely support these rules so that they can fend off any new competitive threat. But Title II is not net neutrality and Oliver should acknowledge the consensus support for enforceable open internet legislation – even from the internet providers themselves.

Trump Trump Trump. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE is a polarizing figure like no other in American politics and the urge to wrap this issue in a Trump v Obama frame will likely prove irresistible. (The British can’t resist.) But that’s just not what’s going on. Will Oliver tell you that left organizations like the NAACP and Communications Workers of America oppose the FCC “utility regulation” framework that the FCC is now pulling back? Or that moderate never Trump Republicans like Carly Fiorina campaigned heavily on this issue? Donald Trump may be great for ratings, but he’s not a player here.

An Easy Solution Right at Hand. Conflict and partisanship makes good TV, but on this issue a simple bipartisan solution is available and at hand. Congress could easily pass a bipartisan law to make net neutrality permanent and put enforceable rules in place for good. Support for this approach is building on the left and right and FCC Chairman Pai has indicated it may provide the simplest path forward. Does Oliver call for this easy, no drama solution, or does he try to keep the controversy alive – and maybe squeeze another ratings bonanza out of it down the road?

John Oliver is a great comedian. But policy isn’t comedy. 

And there is more to the net neutrality debate than dingo jokes. 

David Balto is an antitrust attorney based in Washington D.C. specializing in consumer protection, intellectual property, and health care. He previously served as policy director at the Federal Trade Commission and as an attorney in the Justice Department's antitrust division.


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