The John Oliver effect: Visualizing public comments (from Trump to expletives) on the FCC's net neutrality rollback

Ajit Pai (FCC)
Under its new leadership with Chairman Pai, the FCC has sought to take a lighter regulatory approach toward net neutrality. (FCC)

In the days following John Oliver's Sunday video on net neutrality, the FCC's public comment filing page has blown up.

Oliver released his video in response to the FCC's newly proposed net neutrality rules, which would reclassify internet service providers as an information service under Title I regulations. Oliver protested this move and urged viewers to visit the FCC's public comment filing site and advocate that ISPs stay under Title II regulation.

The site attracted over 520,000 comments on its new net neutrality proceeding page, dwarfing the number of comments the page had received up to that point and briefly bringing the site down.

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Indeed, the volume of commentary was over 10 times the amount Oliver inspired over the same number of days in 2014, when his influence was widely credited with encouraging the FCC's decision to reclassify internet service providers under Title II regulations a few months later.

The comments varied greatly in form and content. The number of comments probably isn't reflective of the true number of people commenting, as some of the comments were submitted under the same name.

Still, few of the comments discussed the same thing. In his video, John Oliver directed viewers to comment specifying their preference for strong net neutrality regulations "under Title II specification." As you can see, about half followed suit:

Some commenters went out of their way to call out John Oliver specifically, but not many. A greater number specified their displeasure with a certain internet provider, or through colorful expletives.

Opponents of net neutrality have also taken up similar tactics. On May 10, a large number of identical comments, more than 128,000, appeared on the site criticizing Obama-era regulation and urging the FCC to stay away from Title II. The comments are thought to be spawned by a bot, according to ZDNet, because even though the text is identical the names and ZIP codes are all different.

While the wave of commentary Oliver inspired has been impressive, it's unclear how much impact it will make. The 2014 comment wave John Oliver inspired came during an FCC administration that was receptive to a more activist regulatory environment and eager to pass some sort of net neutrality rules.

In contrast, commenters' appeals now fall on Trump-appointed Chairman Ajit Pai and the FCC's 2-1 Republican majority. The current administration is largely hostile toward heavy regulation, and Pai took the FCC's helm promising to change the net neutrality rules.

Still, proponents of net neutrality have reason to avoid despair. Public opinion currently appears to be on their side, and Chairman Pai may have to defend his new rules in court.

Editor's Note: This article was updated on May 11 to include the information about anti-net neutrality comments.

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