John Oliver Just Won the Net Neutrality Battle
Policy + Politics

John Oliver Just Won the Net Neutrality Battle

Finally, something official on net neutrality.

After months of calls, comments, e-mails, frenzied debates and crushing John Oliver segments, the frothy-mouthed advocates on both sides of the Net Neutrality divide have real news to alternately scream about or celebrate. This time it’s not another rumor. This one is straight from the Dingo’s mouth.

The FCC Chairman is embracing a new model for ensuring net neutrality, proposing to regulate broadband providers like public utilities. In a Wired op-ed and an online fact sheet posted Wednesday, Wheeler confirmed that he would now recommend to the FCC an approach that shifts the legal classification of broadband providers in order to regulate them more closely. Wheeler’s new approach uses regulatory powers afforded by Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934, allowing the government to treat broadband Internet the saqme way it does your telephone land line or electric company — a basic necessity rather than an optional service like, say, cable TV.

The debate over regulating Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as a utility has been brewing for some time now, but it's always been largely relegated to techier corners of the internet, with activist groups like the EFF trying, and often failing, to bring attention to the matter. However, it was given a new lease on life when news pundit John Oliver dedicated the brunt of an episode of his show, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, to dissecting the issue. Laying out the details of either side of the debate interspersed with pithy humor, Oliver drew the issue to the attention of the masses, finishing up his segment with a call-to-arms: the FCC were still receiving comments on the issue.

The resulting torrent of comments slowed the FCC's website to a crawl and crashed their comment section multiple times. When all was said and done, the final count of comments almost totalled four million.

Related: Why Cord-Cutters Should Care About Net Neutrality

Title II regulation is the same regulatory path to a “free and open Internet” that President Obama had pushed for in November, but the new op-ed marks a somewhat stark turnaround for Wheeler, a former telecom lobbyist who, in earlier stages of the debate, argued in favor of paid prioritization. Paid prioritization is a form of tiered traffic that allows ISPs to give content providers a “fast lane,” enabling them to charge companies a premium for delivering their content at a higher speed.

In his Wired letter, though, Wheeler denounces the practice:

“These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services…my proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission,” he wrote.

Wheeler added that these rules would extend to mobile broadband, such as the services provided by AT&T. The FCC’s earlier attempts at Internet regulations, thrown out by courts, had held mobile carriers to a lower standard.

Related: The Net Neutrality Debate Explained

Despite the FCC’s change of heart, we probably wouldn’t recommend smashing up your Time Warner Cable modem in an abandoned field Office Space-style just yet. While Wheeler’s words as FCC Chair obviously carry weight, the proposal itself still has to be voted on by the other sitting members of the commission. The FCC is scheduled to vote on the matter on Feb. 26.

Even if the FCC pushes ahead with Wheeler’s suggestions, the new proposals aren’t about to go uncontested. Both AT&T and Verizon are already gearing up for court, and you can bet your throttled 15Mbps connection that the legal proceedings aren’t over.

For now, though, the FCC has at least made clear how it plans to define the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, and it’s handed a tentative victory to John Oliver and net neutrality activists — and delivered a real setback to major Internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.

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