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Net Neutrality Debate Goes Viral

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission’s network neutrality docket has returned with a vengeance.

It’s now not only a place for well over 1 million comments, but it is once again something of a social media touchstone, with the help of HBO viewers and FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s willingness to join in the exercise.

It is hard to keep up with all the net neutrality goings-on with the FCC docket, branded “Restoring Internet Freedom,” but it is a way to frame the debate in terms of the irritation that has been inflamed and the power of the internet, the central player in this regulatory passion play.

The FCC’s professed distributed denial of service attack did not prevent it from ultimately posting more than 1 million comments and counting in the docket since the attack was announced. The melange is a collection of individual comments, many spurred by John Oliver of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, as well as comments prompted by activists who support Pai’s plan to reclassify ISPs as information service providers not subject to common-carrier regulations under Title II of the Communications Act.

But there was a racial undercurrent to some of the comments — Pai is the first Indian-American FCC chairman — that prompted some pushback from Oliver and even a response from Pai himself in an online video.

Oliver took some credit for the flood of comments, but also provided a warning on his Sunday-night show about the tenor of some of the missives.

No Debate on Racism

On the May 14 episode of Last Week Tonight, Oliver pointed to some of the racist reaction. “If any of those came from anyone who watches this show, stop it,” he said. “Writing racist things on the internet is not how you win the net neutrality debate; it’s how you win the presidency.”

He encouraged viewers to keep filing comments, but to wait until after the FCC’s May 18 vote, since the agency was in the pre-meeting “sunshine” quiet period. Comments could still be filed, a test of the system confirmed, but the commissioners and staff cannot be lobbied on agenda items in the week before a public meeting.

Pai even took to the web himself — through the social-media news site Independent Journal Review — to read some of the “mean tweets” aimed at him, taking a well-worn page from ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that generated an online pushback from some who suggested it was a diversionary tactic. “Flooded with thoughtful net neutrality comments, FCC highlights ‘mean tweets,’” read one headline.

An FCC spokesperson suggested the chairman hardly cherry-picked the worst of the bunch.

“The tweets that chairman Pai read were by no means the most egregious tweets or personal attacks,” the spokesperson said. “Moreover, they were of a similar nature to those read by President [Barack] Obama and members of Congress in other mean tweets videos.”

Laughing It Off

An opportunity to use some online wit to diffuse the pointed criticisms would not be a big stretch for Pai. The chairman has brought his well-documented brand of humor to FCC meetings for years, with song lyrics and cultural references peppering his public statements, and even singing along to a protest song offered up at his first public meeting and joking with lone Democrat Mignon Clyburn at that meeting about her injured finger that was wrapped so the middle finger was sticking out.

In the video, Pai says he enjoys the public debate about the future of the internet. The video certainly gives that impression as he jokingly reads the “mean tweets” and responds good naturedly, bobbling his own head when he is likened to a bobble-head doll, for example, and defusing various racially charged tweets with humor.

“Go back to Africa were you came one,” he read, answering, “Do you even English, bro?” He follows that with: “Ajit Pai is another fascist who needs to be apprehend and to be put on trial for crimes against the people. The Guillotines are coming.” His response: “Well, you’re not going to catch me if I’m back in Africa, now are ya?”

Looking to return social-media fire as well was Pai’s chief of staff, Matthew Berry, who tweeted about his boss’ “mean tweets” video; protests in Pai’s Arlington neighborhood, which he called a “pathetic” attempt to harass Pai’s family; and to call the chairman “the internet’s friend.”

Friend or foe, last week’s vote to launch the process of unwinding Title II is likely only going to increase the social media decibel level.