TIME Television

How the ‘John Oliver Effect’ Is Having a Real-Life Impact

John Oliver
HBO

His show has crashed websites, boosted donations and inspired legislation

Comedians mock our cultural and political institutions on TV all the time. But it’s not every day that a comic’s jokes crash a government website or directly inspire legislators to push for new laws.

John Oliver, host of HBO comedy news program Last Week Tonight, is quickly building up that level of cultural cachet. While his forebears and former colleagues Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart spend as much time lampooning the news media covering world events as they do analyzing events themselves, Oliver’s show stands out for its investigations into topics as varied as the militarization of the police state, Net neutrality and Argentina’s debt crisis.

MORE Feds Limit Law That Lets Cops Seize Your Stuff

Now Oliver’s approach has been cited as an inspiration for local government transparency. Just last week a Washington State legislator proposed a new bill that would let citizens comment on new legislation using videos submitted online. The state senator backing the new bill credited Oliver’s ability to turn boring topics into viral phenomena through online video as motivation for the new initiative.

It’s not the first time the show has caused real-world ripples. Here are other examples of times when the so-called “John Oliver effect” had an actual impact on the world:

Crashing the FCC Over Net Neutrality

One of Oliver’s most popular segments was an in-depth look at changing Net-neutrality laws last summer. Oliver took cable and phone companies to task, accusing them of wanting to create Internet “fast lanes” that would show preference to certain types of Internet traffic above others and undermine the traditional tenets of a free and open Internet. Oliver implored his fans to write to the Federal Communication Commission to voice their displeasure with potential changes to Net neutrality. The government agency received so many comments that its servers crashed. Internal emails later revealed that FCC officials were watching — and laughing at — Oliver’s takedown when it aired.

Giving Back to Female Engineers

During a segment railing against the Miss America pageant, Oliver dug into the organization’s tax filings to challenge the claim that it doles out $45 million in scholarship dollars each year. Though he determined that the Miss America Organization is the largest provider of scholarships for women in the world, he directed viewers to donate to other groups he deemed more worthy instead, like the Society of Women Engineers. Lo and behold, the engineering organization racked up $25,000 in donations in two days following the segment, or about 15% of its typical annual donations from individuals. The group credited the huge spike to the “John Oliver bounce.”

Raising Awareness of Civil Forfeiture Laws

Following up on a lengthy investigation by the Washington Post, Oliver spent an episode explaining a law that allows police to confiscate cash and property from people who have not been charged with a crime. The practice is known as civil forfeiture, and Oliver took the policy to its absurdist conclusion with a mock Law and Order episode in which Jeff Goldblum tries to interrogate inanimate objects. After the increased exposure given to the issue by the Post and Oliver, Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would enact major limitations on the law.

Read next: Larry Wilmore’s First Nightly Show: The Underdog as Top Dog

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

MONEY

Why President Obama’s Plan Just Might Fix the Internet

Streaks of traffic on highway interchange
Zoonar GmbH—Alamy

More competition is the only thing that will improve America's internet service, and a "public option" might be the best way to create it.

If you’re sick of your internet service provider, you’re hardly alone. Comcast, the largest service provider in the U.S., has won the Consumerist‘s “Worst Company in America” title twice, most recently in 2014. Time Warner Cable, the giant competitor with which Comcast hopes to merge, made it to the semi-finals. (MONEY was once part of the same company as Time Warner Cable, but that was several corporate spin-offs ago.)

That dissatisfaction is not surprising given that comparative studies consistently show Americans have the worst internet service in the developed world. The Open Technology Institute’s most recent Cost of Connectivity report summarized its findings like this: “The data that we have collected in the past three years demonstrates that the majority of U.S. cities surveyed lag behind their international peers, paying more money for slower Internet access.”

That’s not really where you want to be with something as important as access to the web.

Service providers could make our download speeds faster, but they would need to spend a lot of money upgrading equipment—something they currently seem disinclined to do. The reason, according to many experts? A simple lack of competition. Right now, 28% of Americans have no choice in broadband providers, and that number will shoot up to around 66% if the TimeWarner/Comcast merger is approved. Think your internet bill is too high or service too slow? Too bad. There’s a good (and potentially growing) chance you may have nowhere else to go.

What about those “net neutrality” rules proposed by President Obama in November? They’ll prevent ISPs from flagrantly abusing captive subscribers—by blocking competitors’ sites, for example—but won’t fix the underlying issue. As long as customers don’t have a choice in providers, mediocre or worse service is here to stay. “[The need for] net neutrality is a symptom,” said Vishal Misra, an associate professor of computer science at Columbia University and an expert on the economics of internet service provision. “The real problem is lack of competition and that’s where the solution should be.”

A “public option”

A possible solution may be on the horizon. On Wednesday, President Obama announced that he would ask the FCC to push back on laws in 19 states that prevent cities from building their own municipal broadband networks. He also outlined a number of other initiatives that promote community-supported broadband and help municipalities improve their internet service.

As NPR notes, it is unclear if the FCC has the authority to preempt state regulations. But a renewed focus on a “public option” for internet service could create the kind of competition that would finally drive down prices and improve service. The White House points out that cities with public broadband, like Chattanooga, Tennessee, tend to have much higher speeds than areas with fewer options.

downloadspeeds_12001

 

Two popular ideas for increasing competition are local loop unbundling—forcing existing service providers to lease their infrastructure to competing providers—and municipalities coming together to create their own infrastructure. Columbia’s Misra, who has authored a paper comparing both alternatives, says his research shows that a public network will create the best outcomes.

The reason? Misra argues that local loop unbundling, though better for consumers than no competition at all, relies too much on the main service provider—the one who owns the pipes—to act in a benevolent fashion.

Misra recalls that when internet was delivered via telephone wires, a service still subject to unbundling regulations in the U.S., there were complaints that infrastructure owners were negligent in maintaining parts of their network. Even in the U.K., an unbundling success story, it took a highly aggressive regulator years to stop the nation’s major fiber owner, British Telecom, from keeping other companies off its network with inflated rates and other anti-competitive tactics.

“Last mile unbundling has been tried and there were performance problems,” says Misra. “A publicly owned infrastructure is much better.”

The best of both worlds?

It turns out a public option could also be a boon for private industry. Should a city choose, it could implement its own form of local-loop unbundling by opening its internet infrastructure to private service providers, getting the benefits of unbundling without the harms. That’s something cities like Stockholm, Sweden and Ammon, Idaho have done to great success.

“We build the road, and we let anybody that wants to use them use them,” Bruce Patterson, Ammon’s technology director, told the Institute for Local Self-Reliance when describing his town’s fiber.

Even for those wary of government-run internet service admit public infrastructure could be positive for consumers. Corynne McSherry, a director at EFF specializing in net neutrality, is too concerned about privacy issues to fully endorse a public ISP. But she admits public fiber rented to private companies could keep broadband providers honest. “What that does is create lots of competition, but the government isn’t my service provider,” says McSherry. “That’s when you’ll have better service because people are competing for your business.”

Even with the president’s support, widespread municipal internet is still far away. But the fact that Republicans in states like Tennessee and Iowa have embraced the idea of publicly funded internet should give its supporters hope.

“In today’s world, people need these services in order to survive, much less thrive,” said Janice Bowling, a Republican state senator from Tullahoma, TN, speaking to Watchdog.org about bill that would expand government-owned internet to rural areas. “It has become the electricity of the 21st century to have adequate broadband access.”

 

TIME technology

Five Ways Net Neutrality Supporters are Winning the Debate

Protesters hold a rally before the FCC meeting on net neutrality proposal in Washington, DC.
Protesters march past the FCC headquarters before the Commission meeting on net neutrality proposal on May, 15, 2014 in Washington. Bill O'Leary—The Washington Post/Getty Images

Proponents of net neutrality are winning the public debate, although that doesn’t mean they’ll win the policy fight.

A new report (PDF) released today by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation shines some light on the debate about net neutrality that’s playing out in Washington, DC these days.

The Federal Commission is expected to release new rules on net neutrality—the idea that Internet Service Providers should treat all web content equally—sometime next year.

Here are some highlights from the report.

1. Men loooove net neutrality. By analyzing news reports, blogs, Twitter, and about a third of the 3 million comments submitted to the FCC this year, the report found that 69% came from men, and 63% from metro areas.

2. And pretty much everyone else on the Internet loves it, too. Let’s put it this way: if you took all the public comments about net neutrality that you could find on Twitter and all the public comments submitted formally to the FCC, and you put a yellow dot on a map for all those in favor of net neutrality and a green dot for all those against it, the entire map would be yellow.

3. The public does not find the concept of net neutrality confusing. Sure, the infrastructure of the back-end of the Internet is complicated, but when it comes to articulating their opinions on net neutrality, the public isn’t intimidated. Of the 1.1 million comments to the FCC that the report analyzed, 40% were “unique responses.” That means that people took the time to write down their own thoughts on the issue, rather than just submitting a form letter prepared by an advocacy group. “This is higher then the typical 10 to 20 percent seen with other regulations,” the report said.

4. Instead of expensive lobbying, net neutrality advocates rely on pushing the public debate. Organizations hoping to get the FCC to pass the strictest-possible rules on net neutrality have staged protests, bought advertising, and launched sophisticated social media campaigns to win public support on the issue. But while they used to have a lock on influencing the public, that’s starting to change. Comcast, for example, “has recently pushed through corporate announcements and advertisements to promote their own open internet philosophy,” the report found.

5. Even the big ISPs lobbying on the issue claim to be in favor of net neutrality. Verizon, Comcast and AT&T, among others, have collectively spent $238 million on lobbying, according to the report, which analyzed roughly 2,500 disclosures from 2009 to the second quarter of 2014. While most ISPs claim their lobbying efforts are pro net-neutrality, their definition of net neutrality generally differs a bit. For example, the ISPs think web companies should pay for special, faster, or prioritized access to web users; pro-net neutrality advocates say such “paid prioritization agreements” ≠ net neutrality.

MONEY Tech

How Comcast Plans to Boost Your Internet Bill With New Fees

Comcast building
Matt Rourke—AP

"People who use more should pay more, and people who use less should pay less," Executive VP David Cohen told investors in May.

Comcast COMCAST CORP. CMCSA 0.6748% has begun testing data caps in certain markets and plans to make what it prefers to call “usage-based” billing standard policy across the country within the next five years.

Previously, in nearly all cases, Internet data was an unlimited flat-rate, all-you-can-eat buffet. Under its new plan, which Comcast has already rolled out in a number of test cities, the company will sell users a flat amount of data and then charge them overages. This will take a system where customers had cost certainty and replace it with the model that has served the cell-phone industry so well — one where subscribers pay more if they go over a set limit.

“People who use more should pay more, and people who use less should pay less,” Executive VP David Cohen told investors in May, BGR reported.

That sounds correct on the surface, and charging more for data over a certain amount may be a necessity in a world where so many of us are streaming video content over our broadband connections as part of our daily lives. But the cable companies, which are also Internet service providers (along with the phone company ISPs), have a poor track record when it comes to billing. Data caps may be logical, and Comcast, which is waiting federal approval of its $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable TIME WARNER CABLE INC. TWC 0.6312% may be going about things the right way, but consumers are right to be wary about what this means for their bill.

What is Comcast doing?

Comcast has been testing two different plan pricing strategies in an expanding number of markets (there are variations and differences depending upon the market). One potential plan offers set amounts of data starting at 300 GB for a fixed price, with additional data being sold in 50 GB blocks for $10. The second plan targets low-volume users and offers them 5 GB of data at a set price, but there is a twist. Customers enrolled in this plan, called the “Flexible Data Option,” receive a $5 credit if they use less than 5 GB in a month but pay $1 per extra GB they use.

With the larger plans, Comcast appears to be making every reasonable effort to allow customers to track where they stand when it comes to data usage. People on the 300 MB or bigger plans will receive an email to their primary Comcast user email address when they reach 90% and 100% of their monthly allotment. In some markets you can also arrange to be notified when you reach 50%, 60%, 70%, 80%, 110%, and 125% of your usage. It’s possible in some markets to set up notifications via text message, and the company will also make an automated phone call to its customers when they pass 100% for the second month in a row.

The company also provides an online usage meter where customers on all tiers can track how much data they have consumed.

For subscribers to these more expensive plans, Comcast appears to be making a reasonable effort to help people avoid overages. The same can’t be said for the Flexible Data customers who are specifically not currently included in the notification system. That means that the customers choosing the cheapest plan are the ones most likely to be blasted with costly, unexpected overages.

Comcast should opt for total transparency

Under these plans, Comcast can profit by charging reasonable overage fees to its higher-data customers on 300 GB and above plans and by hitting its lower-end users with prices per GB for overages that are five times higher. Comcast may need to do this as more customers use more data and strain increases on its infrastructure. But if capping data and adding overage charges is really about maintaining network integrity, the company should warn all customers when they are getting close to their allotment and require authorization to add more data for the month.

There’s a way to do this right, if it truly needs to be done at all, and it involves putting choice in the hand of the customer and not using a data cap to inflate people’s bills without their consent. Comcast can still charge more and better control its resources — which is good for the company — while ensuring that its subscribers retain control over their expenses and avoid monthly billing surprises.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 24

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. A bipartisan plan in North Carolina shrunk prison population and cut costs while the crime rate continued to fall. Can it serve as a model for other states?

By the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments

2. In international development, the massively scaleable transformative idea is usually too good to be true.

By Michael Hobbes in the New Republic

3. Net Neutrality could have a big impact on the future of healthcare, from telemedicine to electronic medical records.

By Darius Tahir in Modern Healthcare

4. Today’s renewable energy technologies won’t save us from climate change. We need new ideas.

By Ross Koningstein & David Fork in IEEE Spectrum

5. We must understand and counter the major trends fueling the ranks of Islamic radicals.

By Maha Yahya in the National Interest

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME technology

FCC Chair Signals He Won’t Follow Obama’s Lead on Internet Rules

Barack Obama, Tom Wheeler
In this May 1, 2013 file photo, President Barack Obama shakes hands with then nominee for Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin—AP

"What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

A top federal regulator is considering a split with President Barack Obama over a controversial Internet policy, according to a new report, in what could set up a big fight between the White House and the Federal Communications Commission.

The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources who were present, sounded a different note than Obama when addressing a room full of tech executives after the President made his statement Monday. “What you want is what everyone wants: an open Internet that doesn’t affect your business,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told executives from several major tech companies, including Google and Yahoo. “What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby.”

Obama on Monday made his strongest statement yet in support of Net Neutrality, the principle that all content should be treated equally online. However, the FCC is an independent agency that’s not required to follow the President’s lead on policy matters.

Read more at the Washington Post

TIME legal

Comcast Just Trolled Us All on Net Neutrality

National Cable and Telecommunications Association Cable Show
The Comcast Corp. logo is seen as Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive officer of Comcast Corp., right, speaks during a news conference at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Cable Show in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Comcast says it agrees with President Obama on net neutrality. It doesn't.

Oh, Comcast.

The country’s largest Internet provider wants you to know that it “agrees with the President’s principles on net neutrality,” as a headline on a Tuesday afternoon blog post from EVP David Cohen reads. Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet content should be treated equally in terms of speed, a concept that’s in jeopardy because of a Supreme Court decision at the beginning of this year that struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s 2010 Open Internet rules enforcing it.

It’s an attention-grabbing headline from Comcast, a company that net neutrality advocates are making out to be among the most nefarious of the bad guys in the ongoing open Internet debate. Right off the bat, it looks like Comcast is agreeing with President Obama, who on Monday unexpectedly came out in favor of reclassifying broadband Internet as a utility. That’s a move big telecoms like Comcast should hate, because it would give the Federal government more authority to regulate their business. So what’s the deal?

It turns out Comcast’s post is just clickbait.

Cohen’s post claims Comcast agrees with Obama’s goals for an open Internet — no blocking content, no slowing down content, more transparency about network practices and no paid fast lanes. Cohen goes on to say that Comcast disagrees with the President on how those rules should be enforced. There’s a wide gulf here: Obama only made news Monday because he called for the Internet to be reclassified under Title II of the Communications Act, a bold move that would categorize Internet providers as “common carriers” and trigger an all-out legislative and judicial war between telecoms, the FCC and advocacy groups.

Comcast, meanwhile, says the Internet should fall under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which gives the government far less authority to regulate Comcast’s business. So there’s no real agreement here at all.

That aside, the problem with Comcast’s Title II/Section 706 logic is that the FCC tried to use non-Title II authority to enforce its Open Internet rules starting back in 2010. But the courts ruled that wasn’t a valid approach, because the agency had previously and explicitly decided not to classify broadband under Title II — meaning the agency starved itself of the regulatory power it would need to legally enforce those rules. Since that ruling, the FCC under Chairman Tom Wheeler has been scrambling to find a way to enforce the Open Internet rules without running afoul of the courts.

Comcast, in its blog post, maintains that the courts left the FCC a way of doing that without triggering the Title II nuclear option — but the reality is that scenario is looking increasingly unlikely. Instead, many observers, including the President, see the FCC’s best path forward as reclassifying broadband providers as common carriers under Title II, but practice what’s called “forbearance,” or use only the regulatory power afforded under Title II the agency deems necessary to enforce its Open Internet rules. How comfortable you feel with that idea, of course, entirely depends on how much you trust a government agency to practice regulatory restraint.

It’s also worth pointing out that Comcast’s blog post makes it a point to advertise that it already practices the Open Internet rules for which Obama’s arguing — but it’s also legally obligated to do so through 2018 as a condition of its merger with NBCUniversal, a fact that’s missing from the post. Comcast also makes a dubious-at-best claim that it doesn’t “prioritize Internet traffic or have paid fast lanes,” even though Netflix is paying Comcast (and, since, other Internet Service Providers) to more quickly deliver Netflix’s content to Comcast subscribers. Whether or not the Comcast/Netflix deal violates “net neutrality” per se is a subject of debate, but that’s splitting hairs: It’s hard to see the arrangement as anything other than a “paid fast lane.”

TIME technology

Conservatives Overwhelmingly Back Net Neutrality, Poll Finds

A poll released today by the Internet Freedom Business Alliance (IFBA), found that conservatives voters like the idea of net neutrality.

Within a few hours of President Barack Obama’s call on Monday for regulators to ensure strict “net neutrality“—rules requiring Internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all Internet content equally—the Republican establishment’s hair caught on fire.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called net neutrality the “Obamacare for the Internet“; House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said it was “a textbook example of the kind of Washington regulations that destroy innovation and entrepreneurship”; and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-Lousiana) said Obama’s attempt to “impose net neutrality regulations on the Internet” was a “radical effort” with “no justification.” To list just a few of the howling reactions.

But according to a poll released today by the Internet Freedom Business Alliance (IFBA), a pro-net neutrality association of businesses, Republicans and conservatives outside of Washington D.C., seem to think that the idea of net neutrality is actually a pretty good one.

Some 83% of voters who self-identified as “very conservative” were concerned about the possibility of ISPs having the power to “influence content” online. Only 17% reported being unconcerned. Similarly, 83% of self-identified conservatives thought that Congress should take action to ensure that cable companies do not “monopolize the Internet” or “reduce the inherent equality of the Internet” by charging some content companies for speedier access.

The poll did not ask participants about specific methods of regulation, like whether the Federal Communications Commission ought to reclassify consumer broadband Internet as a utility under “Title II”—as Obama has called for—or whether it should use “Section 706″ of the Telecommunications Act, another statute relating to broadband infrastructure.

The poll, explained Andrew Shore, the executive director of IFBA, was designed to “get to the heart” of net neutrality by asking voters whether they believed that the government should prevent Internet service providers (ISPs) from charging Internet content companies for special access to Internet customers.

The poll also asked whether voters were concerned that big ISPs—like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T—could influence the government and elected officials in their favor; 72% of self-identified conservatives said yes.

Last year, Comcast—the nation’s biggest ISP by a long shot—spent more on lobbying than any other company in the U.S. except Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor that makes the B-2 bomber. Of the $16.4 million it has spent on lobbying and campaign contributions this year, large chunks have gone to the National Republican Congressional Committee ($104,000); the National Republican Senatorial Committee ($87,975); and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ($85,750), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Boehner, who was among the first to slam Obama’s call for net neutrality regulations yesterday, has received $107,775 from Comcast—nearly twice as much as any other other member of Congress. Boehner also holds stock in Comcast, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But big Internet content companies which are in favor of net neutrality regulations, like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Ebay, are hardly wallflowers in this debate. So far this year, Google spent $3.9 million in campaign donations and $13.7 million on lobbying.

(The Vox Populi poll surveyed 1,270 active voters on Oct. 26/27, with a margin of error of +/-2.8%.)

Read next: Inside Obama’s Net Neutrality Power Play

TIME The Brief

#TheBrief: The Battle for Control of the Internet

Explaining what 'net neutrality' really means to you — and the future of the Internet

President Obama took to the White House YouTube channel Monday to call for broadband internet providers to be regulated as a utility — a move that signals his support for the concept of “net neutrality“.

What’s net neutrality? It’s the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast or Verizon should treat all content equally. It might not sound like an inspirational cause, but the question of who has rights to control the Internet affects almost everyone.

Cable companies are clamoring for the right to give faster speeds to certain clients, while many content providers are in favor of keeping all data on the Internet on equal footing.

Watch #TheBrief to find out what’s at stake.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser