Could John Oliver make digital freedom history again with Section 215?


John Oliver — the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight — surprised the world on Sunday by punctuating a report on government surveillance with an exclusive interview of Edward Snowden taped in Moscow. But could the comedian’s pointed attempt to focus attention on an issue of digital freedom that the public is largely ignoring actually influence policy?

It’s happened before.

In a widely praised segment last June, Oliver helped spark a massive backlash to propose Federal Communication Commission guidelines that would have ended Net Neutrality as we know it.

“Seize your moment, my lovely trolls,” Oliver told his viewers, after directing them to the FCC site to offer their opinions on policies what would lead to preferential treatment of some data. “Turn on caps lock, and fly, my pretties!”

Since then, the Obama Administration fully embraced Net Neutrality and the FCC followed by voting for a 400-page order that aims to “preserve the open internet.”

This weeks segment on the PATRIOT Act focused on Section 215, which has been used to justify bulk collection of electronic communication and is among the provisions of the law set to expire in June.

Noting the consensus that the provision needs to be reformed, Oliver described what the law allows, “Section 215 says the government can ask for ‘any tangible things’ so long as it’s for ‘an investigation to protect against international terrorism.’ That’s basically a blank check.”

He went on to echo the pessimism our Security Advisor Sean Sullivan offered when he made “One Definitive Prediction” early this year.

“Section 215 and Section 206 of the USA PATRIOT Act and Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act will be reauthorized before their June 1, 2015 expiration date,” Sean wrote. He added, “Don’t expect reform in 2015. The violation of your digital freedom will continue.”

To show why this highly controversial provision was about to be rubber-stamped for five more years, Oliver showed interviews where random people in Times Square were asked to explain who Edward Snowden is. The closest someone got was to call him “the Wikileaks guy,” who is actually Julian Assange.

In Moscow, when Snowden lives in exile, Oliver attempted to explain to the former NSA contractor why his story — which made international news in 2013 — hadn’t prompted any significant reforms in the US. The host explained that Americans don’t care about foreign surveillance, but they do care about the government looking at their junk — literally their private parts.

“I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk,” Snowden said, after walking through a breakdown of National Security Agency initiatives like PRISM, MYSTIC and XKeyscore in the context of a picture of Oliver’s junk.

The Birmingham-born comic’s unique brand of humorous deep dives into under-investigated news stories has been branded “investigative comedy” by some critics. But with his Net Neutrality story, Oliver veered toward “comedic activism.”

Unfortunately, Oliver didn’t give his viewers an action to take at the end of the surveillance show. Perhaps shining a massive light on the story — the show has already been viewed online more than 3 million times — will be enough to influence lawmakers. But given the split in the American public’s concerns between surveillance and worries about groups like ISIS, the chances for true reform seem dim.

And that would make Sean very pessimistic.


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