John Oliver, FCC feud heats up

Hill photo illustration

The feud between HBO star John Oliver and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is heating up.

Oliver skewered FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to roll back net neutrality rules during Sunday’s episode of “Last Week -Tonight.”

{mosads}His takedown appeared to send thousands of people to the FCC’s website, which crashed after the Sunday episode aired.

Oliver blasted Pai’s plan as hurting consumers and argued that the chairman’s statement that the rules were holding back investment in broadband were contradicted by statements that company officials have made to their own shareholders.

Viewers were told to take action by visiting the page, which directly linked to the FCC’s net neutrality comment page.

The FCC blamed the slowness on a cyberattack, not Oliver.

“Beginning on Sunday night at midnight, our analysis reveals that the FCC was subject to multiple distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS),” FCC Chief Information Officer David Bray said in a statement Monday.

“These were deliberate attempts by external actors to bombard the FCC’s comment system with a high amount of traffic to our commercial cloud host.”

Not everyone bought the explanation.

“It’s an odd coincidence,” said one former FCC Democratic staff member. “I’m skeptical that this is a DDoS attack. The [Electronic Comment Filing System] was always inadequate. We were promised an adequate system after the millions of comments filed last time brought the system down, and I am dubious that that fix ever happened.”

The former staffer said that Bray should at least reveal evidence of the attack. On Tuesday Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) sent a letter to the FCC also asking for proof.

Advocacy groups expressed skepticism at the FCC’s explanation as well.

“Very ~*interesting*~ that the @FCC is claiming a DDos attack took down its site and not just concerned Americans fighting for #netneutrality,” the activist group Color of Change tweeted on Monday.

“We know better. And we won’t be ignored or intimidated,” the group wrote in another tweet responding to the incident.

In the two days since the episode aired, the FCC has received almost 150,000 comments on Pai’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” plan, which would nix the Obama-era rules preventing providers from charging some companies or consumers more for a speedier internet. Since the plan’s introduction on April 26, it has received 350,000 filings.

“The FCC’s statement today raises a lot of questions, and the agency should act immediately to ensure that voices of the public are not being silenced as it considers a move that would affect every single person that uses the Internet,” said Evan Greer, campaign director at Fight for the Future.

Greer called on the agency to release its logs to an independent security analyst or major news outlet to verify the cyberattack.

Mark Wigfield, a spokesman at the FCC, did not say whether the FCC would release evidence of the attack.

It’s the second time Oliver has used his platform to go after the FCC.

In 2014, at the height of the debate over the net neutrality rules, Oliver criticized cable companies like Verizon and Cox Communications, which he argued were using lobbying dollars to influence the debate against the public’s best interest. He urged users to file their comments on the rules to the FCC during the 120-day open comment period.

At around the time of the show’s airing in 2014, the FCC’s comment filing site also slowed down, which the commission is now attributing to a cyberattack as well.

Wigfield said that the FCC is only now revealing the attack because it did not want to incite copycats.

At the time, Oliver’s segment helped galvanize comments and was seen by some as pivotal in drawing attention to the net neutrality debate. By the time the rules were approved in 2015, the public had filed 4 million comments, a majority of which supported net neutrality.

Timothy Karr of Free Press, a pro-net neutrality consumer group, called Oliver’s speaking up on the matter “helpful” but also argued that opposition to the rollback is so fierce that “Last Week Tonight” only contributed to a portion of the public outcry.

“Oliver’s role in driving comments to the FCC in 2014 is often overstated in the media,” Karr told The Hill.

“The millions who came to the agency at that time came via numerous sources including through the work of the very diverse coalition that supported Title 2 rules,” he said, referring to the Title II reclassification of broadband providers as “common carriers,” which gives the FCC the authority to regulate them.

Advocacy groups had previously said that they expected a public outpour to begin after the FCC meeting in May, when, if Pai’s proposal were approved for consideration, the comment period for his net neutrality plan would officially open.  

It’s unclear how much the public’s comments will matter, though. Senior members of the FCC told reporters on a media call in April that they won’t take into account the amount of comments filed. Instead, Republican staff members at the FCC will be looking for arguments that they deem to be legally sound.

Tags Ron Wyden
See all Hill.TV See all Video