HBO’s John Oliver Sparks FCC Website Crash


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When Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai made his intention to rewrite net neutrality rules clear last month, many observers felt there was only one thing that was certain to happen: Another John Oliver battle cry.

On May 7, the HBO comedian fulfilled that prediction with a robust defense of the Federal Communications Commission’s existing rules on his “Last Week Tonight” late night show. Oliver urged his viewers to weigh in at the FCC. The commission’s website promptly crashed in what the agency is saying was a series of cyberattacks which prevented legitimate commenters from filing.

This isn’t the first time Oliver had jumped into the net neutrality fray and sparked a wave of public comments to the FCC. In 2014, an episode of Oliver’s show supporting the rules, which prevent internet service providers such as Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. from blocking, throttling or slowing content, went viral.

“Every internet group needs to come together like you successfully did three years ago,” Oliver said May 7. “Once more unto the breach my friends, simply go to this URL and tell the FCC to preserve net neutrality and Title II.”

After both episodes, the agency’s filing system couldn’t keep up.

Within hours of Oliver’s May 7 show, the FCC’s public docket was down. Some internet observers wondered if a deluge of comments had temporarily toppled the agency’s system, as the FCC admitted it had back in 2014.

On May 8, the agency said its servers came under multiple distributed denial of service (DDos) attacks that prevented legitimate commenters from submitting their filings, according to a statement. The statement did not specify the source of the attacks, but said the external actors were not attempting to file comments themselves.

As of the afternoon of May 8, more than 91,000 comments had been filed since the day prior when Oliver’s segment aired, with a total of more than 178,000 filings since the docket opened April 26. Oliver’s segment had been viewed on YouTube almost 7 million times. In 2014, Oliver’s viral episode supporting net neutrality helped spark a deluge of 4 million filings with the agency.

In a recent Recode podcast, Pai said not all of 2014’s comments to the agency were in support of the rules, and that the agency would look more at the facts on record than a “numerical threshold” in making its decision.

“They don’t say, “okay, 51 percent say yes and 49 percent say no, then the decision is clear," or any proportion greater than that,” Pai told Recode.

Startup advocacy groups like Engine and tech trade groups such as Internet Association, which represents companies like Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, re-stated their support of existing net neutrality regulations in recent weeks. The groups say the Obama-era rules help protect the ability of smaller internet companies to compete with larger players on a level playing field.