The Semantic Death of Net Neutrality

Political language is garbage. No, that’s wrong: American Politics is the garbage, and its language is just the stink. “Pro-life” and “pro-choice” do not look each other in the eye. “Pro-family” activists oppose the legal establishment of many particular families. The absence of a “right-to-work” law does not eliminate any right to work, real or imagined.

This falls into a certain class of problem, which I guess you could call toxic semantic byproduct. An empty corporate culture gives way to hollow office speak; an identity-confused media gives rise to CONTENT without content; an entrenched contract-based wireless industry allows misleading advertising nonsense to be passed off as bold straight-talk. In isolation, these byproducts would all rise to the level of problems worth addressing. In the shadows of their much larger and more insidious root problems, it seems beside the point to bring them up.

But here were are, on the cusp of an national conversation about net neutrality, with a special case: An issue that’s important but not an immediate threat to human wellbeing; a corresponding language so horribly mangled and confusing that it precludes productive public debate. Net neutrality is the rare political discussion with a semantic byproduct so toxic that it doesn’t just drive away people who might want to engage with it, it risks suffocating itself. Try working backwards from the President’s announcement today:

An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.

“Net neutrality” has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation — but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.

By the time he gets around to defining net neutrality, in four bullet points, it’s too late: the feeling that you are being sold on something, not told about it, is overwhelming from the start. What you’re being sold, however, is not.

Now try this sympathetic response from Tim Wu, the man who coined the term “net neutrality,” published on the New Yorker’s website:

In 2007, then Presidential candidate Barack Obama pledged that he’d only appoint Federal Communications Commission chairmen who support net neutrality — the rules that forbid broadband companies from blocking certain Internet traffic or creating slow lanes so that some Web sites run faster than others. He called himself “a strong supporter of net neutrality,” and that helped him to win the support of many people in the technology world. But things didn’t go as planned…

…With another compromise looming, the President today released a video that suggests, in short, that he’s had it. In unusually explicit terms, he has told the agency exactly what it should do. Enough with the preëmptive compromises, the efforts to appease the carriers, and other forms of wiggle and wobble. Instead, the President said, enact a clear, bright-line ban on slow lanes, and fire up the agency’s strongest legal authority, Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, the “main guns” of the battleship F.C.C.

In an interview last month, Wu said he doesn’t regret coining the term: “People say it’s confusing and yet somehow millions of Americans found themselves motivated to write to the [Federal Communications] Commission.” The first mention of net neutrality in his piece is followed by an attempt at definition that falls back on a metaphor about roads and lanes and traffic. If Wu can’t easily cut to the essence of net neutrality, who can?

Netflix responded with its own positive formulation, which the White House Twitter account then retweeted:

Pres. @BarackObama agrees: consumers should pick winners and losers on the Internet, not broadband gatekeepers.

— Netflix US (@netflix) November 10, 2014

There’s a lot going on here. If net neutrality is about “lowering the cost of launching a new idea,” why does Netflix care? They’re an incumbent company! Is it because net neutrality rules could conceivably save the company a lot of money, or prevent it from losing a lot of customers? Yes, obviously, which makes the Twitter endorsement.. I don’t know, sort of weird, as a point in favor of new government regulations? To be fair, “Netflix wants net neutrality, and you like Netflix” is one of the clearest arguments the White House has at its disposal right now.

If you were to try to find Comcast’s position on net neutrality, there’s a good chance you would end up on its official net neutrality page, which contains this paragraph:

Net Neutrality Protection for More Americans: Comcast’s transaction with Time Warner Cable will bring Net Neutrality protection to millions of new customers in cities from New York to Los Angeles. A free and open Internet stimulates competition, promotes innovation, fosters job creation, and drives business.

This was updated four days ago. Today, the company issued this statement:

Comcast fully embraces the open Internet principles that the President and the Chairman of the FCC have espoused — transparency, no blocking, non-discrimination rules, and no “fast lanes”, which is the way we operate our network today.


We continue to believe… that section 706 provides more than ample authority to impose those rules, as the DC Circuit made clear.

So: Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet. However, also, but: Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet.

AT&T; was more direct:

Today’s announcement by the White House, if acted upon by the FCC, would be a mistake that will do tremendous harm to the Internet and to U.S. national interests.

The carriers’ political allies are anti-regulation conservatives. Thousands of people who already understand the contours of the net neutrality debate are pointing at this Ted Cruz tweet, suggesting that it is ridiculous.

“Net Neutrality” is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.

— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) November 10, 2014

And it is. He is. But if it’s more ridiculous than any of today’s other visible attempts at articulating what net neutrality is about, it’s difficult to say why. He may be wrongheaded, or just wrong, but putting this discussion into the terms of the healthcare debate — itself a toxic and indirect rhetorical nightmare — might actually be an improvement over what we’ve been doing for the last ten years. It’s wouldn’t be helpful, exactly, but it might be less unhelpful.

In practical terms, “net neutrality” is the idea that there ought to be laws that prevent the large, monopolistic companies that sell internet access from charging different rates for different parts of the internet, either by asking customers to pay extra to access, say, YouTube, or by asking YouTube/Google to pay some sort of fee itself. Opponents say that preventing internet providers from levying these fees would discourage them from investing money in infrastructure. They would make less, and so they would spend less, and so, the argument goes, progress would be stalled.

In philosophical terms, though, this a fight about whether or not the government should be allowed to regulate commerce — it’s a subset of an argument that American politics will do almost anything to avoid dealing with head-on, because it’s old and paralyzing and over before it even starts. A discussion about healthcare can survive such a diversion, barely, because the stakes are immediate and obvious — arguments about life and death have, at least, a sliver of a chance at transcending politics. Net neutrality is not that kind of issue. People don’t want to pay more for Netflix and hate their cable companies and already feel like their phone bills are too high. These are the proxy discussions available to net neutrality supporters: negatively defined, already exhausting, and theoretical, a lot like the phrase “net neutrality” itself. It’s a noble campaign to treat internet companies like electricity companies, not because people love ConEd, or because utilities operate perfectly, but because the alternative scenarios are worse. (One way to reframe and humanize net neutrality would be to make it about poverty, access, and inequality — to make the case that, without it, the poor would be exiled to a lesser internet. I WOULD NOT BET ON THIS APPROACH.)

The broken language of net neutrality has relegated it to a simmering background issue, difficult for politicians to deploy in the service of reelection, briefly breaking through only when the John Oliver makes a video, or a lawyer for Verizon says something egregious, or Barack Obama issues a statement out of the blue. The rest of the time it belongs to activists, who know what they mean but can’t quite get it across, and to lobbyists, who mean only to win.