The last time John Oliver issued a net neutrality call, the segment went viral, putting the HBO show on the map and prompting online hordes to flood the Federal Communications Commission’s website with comments — so many that the site crashed.
HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” is back at it. On Sunday night, Oliver devoted nearly 20 minutes to warning that net neutrality is again threatened, this time under a new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, who has said he wants to undo Obama-era regulations and has called on the FCC to vote on a proposal May 18.
“Every Internet group has to come together like you successfully did three years ago,” Oliver pleaded.
Back in 2014, “Last Week Night” had aired just four episodes before turning to net neutrality. The FCC was considering new rules, and Oliver asked Internet commenters to “focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction” and leave comments on the FCC’s website. The URL was simple — FCC.gov/comments — and within days, the agency’s commenting system slowed and crashed.
Eventually, 4 million people filed comments on the wonky subject, and in 2015, the FCC approved strong net neutrality rules that mandated Internet providers be treated as public utilities and made it illegal for them to block or slow down websites for consumers.
But logging an official comment with the FCC in 2017 is a little more involved, as Oliver explained Sunday night. You have to visit a long URL — FCC.gov/ecfs/search-proceedings — and go through a series of steps before you can comment on “Restoring Internet Freedom.”
“If you think, ‘Well, that’s just too complicated, I’m not doing it,’ don’t worry, because that’s why we bought the URL GoFCCYourself.com,” Oliver said. Going to that Web address automatically redirects you to the FCC’s “Restoring Internet Freedom” page, where users can hit the “express” button and leave a comment.
“Don’t tell me you don’t have the time to do this. If the Internet is evidence of nothing else, it’s evidence that we all have way too much time on our hands. Yes, I’m talking to you, everyone who posts ‘May the 4th be with you’ on Star Wars Day,” Oliver said. “You cannot say you’re too busy when 540,000 of you commented on Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement, and only 673 of you took the time to review the Grand Canyon on Yelp — seven of whom gave it a one-star review.”
By midday Monday, while much of FCC.gov loaded without a problem, the page to leave a comment on the website loaded intermittently — sometimes not at all, sometimes just slowly. Was it Oliver’s plea? According to the agency, the FCC was actually targeted by denial-of-service attacks starting around midnight, Sunday, not by people wanting to leave comments.
“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,” FCC chief information office David Bray said in a statement Monday afternoon. “These actors were not attempting to file comments themselves; rather they made it difficult for legitimate commenters to access and file with the FCC.” (Bray’s statement includes no mention of Oliver’s plea or the website he set up.)
The original “Last Week Tonight” net-neutrality segment came to represent what the show does best: explaining a complicated and potentially boring issue with laughs, and issuing a call to action that led to tangible results. Oliver’s net-neutrality rant was so impactful that the satirical late-night news host was credited with helping to take the issue to the mainstream.
But in 2017, the unprecedented nature of Donald Trump’s presidency and the polarized state of the country has led to a late-night comedy landscape dominated by jokes at the president’s expense.
A few episodes of this season’s “Last Week Tonight” have had a strong Trump focus, and the show has even bought airtime on Fox News to try to directly appeal to the president on health care through ads. But he has indicated he wants his show to tackle lesser-known policy issues. Ahead of this current season of “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver told the New York Times the show would resist the urge to go “all Trump, all the time.”
“It’s a lot of people feeding on the same carcass,” he told the Times. “We try to pick a different carcass because of how many different beaks have already gotten to it.”
Oliver did just that Sunday by giving a platform to a below-the-radar issue that’s become inextricably tied to him. And he barely mentioned Trump at all.
“I do not particularly trust this or any Congress to get something as complicated as this right,” Oliver said on his show. “And I definitely wouldn’t want the current president involved as — and this will not surprise you — he doesn’t seem to have any idea what any of this is.”
This post has been updated.