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John Oliver, Net Neutrality, and the Ghost of SOPA-PIPA

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John Oliver, Net Neutrality, and the Ghost of SOPA-PIPA

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John Oliver, Net Neutrality, and the Ghost of SOPA-PIPA

So now the net neutrality debate has its very own pop culture hook.  It’s been a week since HBO’s John Oliver unleashed his entertaining but scathing rant against the FCC and Chairman Tom Wheeler, the cable-ISP industry, and the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Oliver’s most winning argument was his broadside aimed at the sometimes mind-numbing way that critical public policy issues are framed and presented to the public at large by the inside-the-Beltway crowd.

Oliver has already had a stunningly direct impact – after ending his piece with a Howard Beale-like plea for Internet commenters to bombard the FCC with their opposition to an unregulated Internet we saw the crash of the FCC’s servers the next day.  The bigger question is whether Oliver’s clever diatribe signals a potential for genuine disruption in the net neutrality debate.   For that, the public policy fiasco of 2012 known as SOPA-PIPA might be a cautionary tale.

What was SOPA-PIPA? You lose your membership in the American Society of Media Policy Wonks if you guessed either (a) the star of Coyote Ugly (it was Piper Perabo), (b) Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls sidekick (Scottie Pippen), or (c) the latest telenovela from Univision (sorry nothing on this one).   In fact, SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House of Representatives) and PIPA (the Protect Intellectual Property Act in the Senate) represented a very public and video hideous policy defeat for the established media content companies (read “Hollywood”).

SOPA-PIPA was Hollywood-endorsed legislation designed to crack down on copyright infringement by piracy-facilitating sites such as Pirate Bay.  One provision would have required Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to sites that law enforcement officials deemed pirate sites. Hollywood had long been a fair-haired child of Congress (if you’ve ever attended a private screening at the Motion Picture Association of America you quickly get a feel for the Hollywood-DC connection).  And it’s hard to think of a less sympathetic “victim” than profit mongering Internet pirates.

But Hollywood badly miscalculated on SOPA-PIPA.  Legislation that at one time seemed like a sure thing went down in flames.

Although there were early warning signs from Silicon Valley of their concerns months in advance, in D.C. the legislation seemed on an inexorable path forward in late 2011.  Committee markups in the House and Senate, even at a time when Congress wasn’t much more functional than it is now, seemed set to move ahead. Then seemingly out of nowhere in mid-January 2012 we saw site blackouts from Wikipedia and Reddit, protesters on the streets in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. and 7 million signatures on a Google petition.  Within a couple of days SOPA-PIPA was more or less dead, and the inside D.C. ballgame was over.

Of course there are plenty of distinctions between the current net neutrality debate and SOPA-PIPA, from already long-energized pro-net neutrality activists to the more technocratic battlefield of an FCC rulemaking rather than congressional legislation.  And while Hollywood sought affirmative passage of legislation, this time around ISPs would seek to maintain the status quo if they could, which is always easier than enacting changes.

And yet….the tone of and reaction to the Oliver piece has the feel of an over-the-top but not too far-fetched a warning shot.

Look – the FCC is in a tough spot.  Most of the cable/ISP industry actually signed off on the prior version of the net neutrality rules, clearly not viewing them as a threat to their existing business.  Yet Verizon still challenged those rules, and the court found that the FCC overstepped its authority.  Before even releasing new draft rules, the FCC and its new Chairman Wheeler came under fire from both sides of the debate.  Net neutrality advocates claimed the new approach would effectively end net neutrality while opponents in the cable industry claimed he was trying to ram draconian regulation down their throats.  And even a somnolent Congress could get involved at some point.

So how could the FCC be perceived as wrong by almost every side? I think the answer lies in the insularity of the debate itself.  Go ask the person on the street what’s going on here.  When the FCC tries to clarify its intent by saying it isn’t creating a “fast lane” but is simply prohibiting a “slow lane” on the Internet, it isn’t surprising that you have a lot of outsider head-scratching.

In SOPA-PIPA the goal of curbing Internet piracy wasn’t an unbridgeable gap between insiders and most outsiders (other than Internet wildings).  Yet just the perceived unintended consequences of the proposed legislation set off an outside policy tsunami. In the case of net neutrality, despite the frequent invocation of the term I’m not sure we have very much consensus between inside and outside on the problem itself.

To net neutrality advocates, we have danger lurking everywhere unless far tougher rules than our current ones are put in place.  To the ISP industry, there is no problem to be addressed, and we live in a world where their investment has created a vibrant, dynamic broadband world.  Without some greater bridging of these fundamental perspectives, I wouldn’t be shocked to see John Oliver representing only one more signpost of an increasingly brutal outsider-insider battle on net neutrality.

For the FCC and policy insiders, I wouldn’t be worrying about responding to John Oliver – just how to find my own.


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