Help, John Oliver: How the FCC Is Trying to Trick Us About Net Neutrality

FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s team isn’t being totally upfront with us

Earlier this month, John Oliver urged his fans to fight back against a plan to kill net neutrality — a confusing but important policy most people only understand if they pay close attention to internet freedom, or watch Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.”

But Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai has a pretty savvy publicity team of his own. The only problem? It isn’t exactly telling you the truth.

Net neutrality is an Obama-era policy designed to ensure that everyone has pretty much the same access to the internet — and that no company can pull strings to gain advantage over its competitors.

For example: Net neutrality rules prohibit internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T from offering different internet speeds to different companies based on their ability to pay. The current rules are supposed to ensure, for example, that Comcast doesn’t slow down streaming by Netflix or Amazon, two companies that, like Comcast, provide streamable movies and TV shows. The cable giant could theoretically make such a move to hobble its competitors.

Consumer groups also worry that allowing internet service providers to favor some companies might lead them to choke off certain news services.

The FCC points to public comments to suggest there is broad support for its plan to lift net neutrality restrictions — creating an unfettered free market in which providers could set whatever speeds they like — perhaps giving preferential treatment to companies that pay for it.

But a closer look reveals the FCC’s plan is meeting stiff opposition by the same sectors cited by the FCC — the public and Silicon Valley.

Matthew Berry, chief of staff to Pai, recently sent out a series of tweets about broad support for Pai’s proposed “Restoring Internet Freedom” plan, which would dump net neutrality rules and allow ISPs like Comcast and AT&T to choke off traffic for some smaller websites in favor of large business partners.

On May 11, Berry tweeted, “New @MorningConsult poll: 78% of Americans favor either light-touch Internet regulation or no regulation at all.” He linked to a public opinion poll of nearly 2,200 registered voters conducted by Morning Consult between April 20-24.

The same day, Berry also tweeted about the same poll, saying, “Americans OPPOSE regulating Internet access as a utility by 18-point margin.”

But Berry was a little selective in his choices about what elements of the poll to cite in his tweets. Though he didn’t say so, the poll also reveals that most of the people questioned lacked knowledge about “regulating internet access as a utility” – the legal underpinning of net neutrality. Sixty-four percent said they had knew “not much” or “nothing at all” about net neutrality.

Once pollsters informed the voters that net neutrality “is a set of rules which say Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, Time Warner [now Spectrum], AT&T and Verizon cannot block, throttle, or prioritize certain content on the Internet,” nearly two thirds of the voters – 61 percent – said they “strongly support (24 percent) or “somewhat support” (37 percent) net neutrality.

But again — Berry didn’t mention that.

In another series of tweets, Berry tweeted about “Silicon Valley support for Internet freedom,” citing Oracle’s letter of support for rescinding net neutrality.  He also tweeted that a Silicon Valley trade group, the Internet Association, spoke out against racist comments on the FCC website directed at Pai, an Indian-American.

“Great to see @InternetAssn condemning threats and racist attacks against @AjitPaiFCC!” Berry tweeted on May 11, citing a written statement by the group.

But Berry failed to tweet that the Internet Association — composed of Silicon Valley heavyweights Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yelp and Netflix — had previously met with Pai and Berry to express their strong opposition to Pai’s plan to reverse net neutrality.

That’s right: It’s possible to disagree with someone on policy while also believing he should not suffer racist attacks.

“The internet industry is uniform in its belief that net neutrality preserves the consumer experience, competition, and innovation online,” the Internet Association leaders told Pai and Berry during an April 11 meeting. “In other words, existing net neutrality rules should be enforced and kept intact.”

Berry also tweeted on May 2 about “strong support on Capitol Hill” for Pai’s plan and linked to an FCC press release about congressional support. But the list includes only 13 representatives and senators — all Republicans.

The public comments on FCC’s website are stacking strongly in favor of net neutrality.

Jeffrey Fossett, a former member of the Airbnb data-science team who is currently studying for a master’s degree in statistics at Harvard, crunched the numbers and found that nearly 97 percent of the public comments were in support of net neutrality.

Fossett based his findings on a sample of 200 responses and removed all verbatim duplicative responses, which may have been fraudulent postings by a robot or the results of a grassroots campaign inspired by the HBO show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

As Fossett noted on his internet post, “Public comments on the FCC’s anti-net neutrality proceeding have exploded over the past week following an incisive pro-net neutrality rant from John Oliver on Sunday [May 8].”

As of Monday, more than 1.5 million public comments had been submitted to the FCC website on net neutrality. The FCC public comments period is currently closed until the FCC issues its decision Thursday.

Pai, a Republican, was appointed to the FCC by President Obama in 2012 and named its chair by President Trump. Both Trump and Pai are strong proponents of rescinding the net neutrality rule. FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, also a Republican-appointed commissioner, publicly urged the FCC to roll back net neutrality after Trump was elected.

Pai and O’Rielly currently form a two-person majority on the five-seat board, because Trump has not filled two board vacancies.