Net Neutrality Fervor Nears Janet Jackson Wardrobe Malfunction Levels

06/02/2014 11:40 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2014

Discussions of net neutrality can become so technical that some have called it "sleep-inducing." But don't tell that to the Federal Communications Commission.

If the amount of emails the FCC has received is any indication, Americans care about the future of the Internet more than any other issue in the agency's history, except for one: Janet Jackson's right breast.

Since the commission began accepting public input on net neutrality on April 24, about 300,000 people have emailed to express an opinion, according to Gigi Sohn, the FCC's special counsel of external affairs. Another 60,000 people have commented through the commission's formal docket, and 6,265 people have called the FCC's 1-800 number.

That makes net neutrality the second-most commented issue at the FCC, behind only Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, which prompted more than 500,000 people to complain to the FCC.

The deluge of emails reflects the massive public outcry that began in late April when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced his proposed new rules governing Internet service after a federal appeals court struck down the old rules. Advocates and tech companies argue that a so-called two-lane Internet would violate the popular notion of net neutrality, or the idea that all websites should be equally accessible to consumers.

Last month, the commission voted 3 to 2 to move forward with rules that would ban Internet providers from blocking or slowing websites, but would allow them to charge companies like Netflix for faster access to customers.

The vote kicked off a four-month public comment period. FCC staffers and media reports have circulated the email address openinternet@fcc.gov, to which people can send their opinion on the issue.

"The chairman tweeted it. I tweeted it," Sohn said. "We want to hear from people."

So far, some comments have been only a single sentence. Others have been several paragraphs long. Some are well-reasoned legal arguments. A few have been "downright abusive," Sohn said.

Many commenters oppose the idea of allowing Internet providers to charge for access to an Internet "fast lane," and have called for tighter regulations on broadband companies, saying they should be treated like utility companies.

"The only 'winners' in this situation are the giant ISPs," one commenter wrote to the FCC last week. "The consumer and everyone else are getting screwed."

Republicans and Internet providers strongly oppose any regulations, saying it would deter telecom companies from investing in their networks.

A dozen FCC employees read every email sent to the commission, summarize its main points, then enter it into docket 14-28, which can be accessed via the FCC's website. Each commenter also gets an automated email reply from Wheeler, thanking them for sharing their views.

"We're hoping to hear from as many people as possible about this critical issue, and so I'm very glad that we can include your thoughts and opinions," Wheeler's email says.

After the public comment period ends in September, the FCC will draft a final set of rules, on which the five commissioners will vote by the end of the year. What the final rules will entail is not determined by a popularity contest, Sohn said. Even if 1 million people write to the FCC to demand a ban on Internet "fast lanes," that doesn't mean the commission is obligated to comply.

But Sohn said Wheeler is listening. The public comments could shape his thinking on the two most controversial issues before the commission -- whether to allow for "fast lanes," and whether Internet providers should face stricter regulation -- and cause him to revise his proposal.

Wheeler's assistant selects "a fair amount" of the most "substantive" comments for him to read, but not all of them, Sohn said.

"He's not reading 300,000 emails," Sohn said.

Some critics have questioned why the FCC should solicit the public's input at all, noting how a topic this complex could be easily misunderstood.

New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo recently wrote the FCC's request for public comment on net neutrality was "about as useful as the Interior Department asking for public feedback on the best way to manage the Hoover Dam."

"Sure, people may have general preferences -- faster Internet, cheaper water! -- but it's difficult to see how regulators will learn anything during the comment period that will allow them to better achieve those preferences," Manjoo wrote in an op-ed last month.

Sohn dismissed such criticism, calling it a "very elitist point of view."

"Does that mean [people] shouldn't raise their voices and be heard?" Sohn asked.

On Sunday night on "Last Week Tonight," the comedian John Oliver called on viewers who routinely leave online comments on less serious topics, like celebrities and dancing babies, to write to the FCC on net neutrality. "This may the moment you've spent your whole life training for," he said.

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