Metaphors in the New Net Neutrality Debate

Let’s say a group of neighbors want to build a bridge over a creek so they can cross over and talk to each other a lot, so it’s really for a neighborhood, maybe a dozen people. But then they find out that the local government is going to require that that bridge is open to the entire community of a million people, no prioritization whatsoever. They don’t get to cross first to go see their neighbor. A million people can come onto their property, ruin their lawns, and walk over that bridge.”

No, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson wasn’t talking about the need for a Mexico border wall.

That is actually the metaphor that Senator Johnson recently used to describe his position in the newly re-awakened net neutrality debate. If you were paying attention last time that issue was front-page news (or are familiar with the basic structure of the Internet), you may be wondering if Johnson got his understanding of the Internet from Go Online with Dick and Jane!

This metaphor is, without question, bad on nearly every level. Others covering the hearing in which Johnson uttered this gem have challenged many components of Johnson’s argument, presented their own metaphors, and suggested that when it comes to the Internet, maybe Johnson is simply “real dumb.” However, there is more to this metaphor than an opportunity to pick on a 61 year-old man who may or may not understand the Internet. The net neutrality debate is, frustratingly for many, back on the table, and this analogy may actually serve as the framework with which Republicans pitch a repeal of this broadly popular initiative to the American public.

 

The technical underpinnings of modern computational technologies are admittedly complex and abstract, lending themselves to metaphor – the “cloud”, data “streams,” the Internet “backbone.” However there is a relevant body of literature which suggests that metaphors are not just innocent associations but rather linguistic expressions of how a person understands and even experiences an abstract concept (see Lakoff and Johnson’s foundational text, Metaphors We Live By, 1980). The use of a metaphor in a political context, then, can be used to shape the understanding and experience of the public on a policy (see Lakoff’s later work on framing political debates in Don’t Think of an Elephant from 2004, Gillespie 2010 on YouTube as a “platform,” this piece on the de-humanization of big data in metaphors like “data mining,” and my own humble contribution on programming languages).

Taken in this light, what can we glean from Johnson’s ISP-as-bridge metaphor? It’s no secret that Johnson, like many Congressional Republicans, new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, and Donald Trump, is in favor of undoing the Open Internet provisions from 2015. Congress has already begun taking steps to limit the FCC’s regulation of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and controlling two out of three branches of government will help speed that along. But they have one major hurdle – as noted already, net neutrality is pretty popular among Americans. Johnson was right in prefacing his metaphor with the observation that “net neutrality sounds great,” – that positive moniker and the associated rules had a major groundswell of grassroots support in 2014, including a record number of comments submitted to the FCC, almost all of which favored net neutrality adoption.

Johnson’s metaphor is an attempt to re-brand this issue, to start priming the public for a major fight on a set of rules already in place for two years and approved by the courts. In deconstructing Johnson’s ISP-as-bridge metaphor, we can examine the technical, social, and political reality that he is promoting in this, the most recent in a long series of analogies – from a “series of tubes” to “Obamacare for the Internet,” – that Republicans have used to try to sway public opinion on this issue. Along the way I’ll try to help fill in the gaps in Johnson’s metaphor in case he wants to keep using it, just ’cause I’m a nice guy.

 

Johnson says Internet Service Providers are “… a bridge over a creek so [neighbors] can cross over and talk to each other a lot…”

At the core of any technological metaphor is an interpretation of how the technology works – its functionality. The cornerstone of Johnson’s metaphor is that ISPs are like bridges that connect you to your “neighbors.” If you travel across that bridge, you can talk to your neighbors. A lot.

Setting aside this extremely limited view of what one can do on the Internet, the metaphor suggests a personal, physical aspect to “going to the Internet.” The Internet does have an amazing transportational effect. “Surfing the web” feels like visiting different communities, different “areas,” where you can meet and interact with new people. There are even maps of the Internet, some abstract and some explicitly geographical, that capture the sense of physicality in “going online.”

But that simply isn’t how it works, and in this and other tech policy issues, how the technology actually works really matters. Neither you, your computer, nor even your browser goes to the place where the content is, getting stuck in traffic on the way there. Simplifying enough for the purposes here, you request information in the form of a URL, your browser sends that request to a server, and that server sends the content to you.

By emphasizing the web user’s “journey to the Internet,” Johnson’s framing suggests that FCC regulations will determine which users can access the Internet through an ISP – that “local governments” determine which “neighbors” can cross “the bridge.” In reality, the Open Internet Rules have much less to do with which individuals can access the Internet than how ISPs deliver the content that users request.

And why does that matter? Because Johnson is making the argument about how the government is regulating your actions, rather than how the government regulates an ISP. The average voter won’t feel nearly as strongly about regulating a multi-national corporation as they will their own freedoms.

If we were going to tweak the technical aspect of Senator Johnson’s metaphor, it might sound something like this: you, a loyal dues-paying member of your community bridge organization, call up the Netflix company across the river and order a movie. They send the movie across the bridge, paying their own fees along the way, and it arrives at your house. Popcorn and cuddles ensue.

 

…A million people can come onto their property, ruin their lawns, and walk over that bridge.”

The use of “property” in the metaphor presents another curious interpretation of technological reality. Presumably the “property” Johnson mentions refers to websites, the proprietors of which, at least under normal circumstances, want to have more people visit them. Pro-business politicians like Johnson should want websites to have more visitors, too, given the sizable and growing portion of the U.S. Economy that is now made up of online sales and advertizing.

So are the “lawns” meant to be servers? Is “the lawn” also “the cloud”? Or was Johnson confusing the hacking of a person’s computer with normal access to a server-hosted website?

In actuality, it doesn’t matter. For Johnson’s purposes, these metaphorical “lawns” don’t need to map to anything in reality. This element of the metaphor has less to do with the technology or even net neutrality than it does appealing to a sentiment currently popular in the U.S. A group of ruffian outsiders coming into your community uninvited and proceeding to ruin your finely manicured lawn – all Johnson left out is that they would take your jobs.

So how about this instead: you, a “property owner,” i.e. online business, want to keep getting orders from across the bridge for your products, as many as you can, knowing that eventually you will have to expand your business to serve more customers. You rely on the bridge to get your deliveries out and are willing to pay the bridge operators, you just want to pay the same rate as other companies who use the bridge as much as you. Sure, you want protection from attackers (hackers, trolls, etc.), but not at the cost of limiting access to the bridge for everyone.

 

Let’s say a group of neighbors want to build a bridge…”

The socio-economic aspect of Johnson’s metaphor is equally, if not more, off base. Internet Service Providers are not, as Johnson suggests, community owned and operated. In fact almost 80% of all broadband subscribers get their Internet from one of four ISPs: multinational, multi-billion dollar a year corporations. Even “mom and pop” ISPs, like those serving rural populations, aren’t altruistic construction workers trying to help the locals go visit their friends only to be foiled by those damn digital lawn ruiners – they are businesses, and they would probably be pretty pleased if they had a million people sign up as subscribers.

That these companies are motivated primarily by profit, not community building, isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself (or at least not the problem I’m addressing here). The problem is that Johnson is again painting a picture that misrepresents these companies, which in reality are about as far from his local organic food co-op model as you can get. That is, unless Johnson meant this as a statement of support for municipal broadband networks, like those supported by net neutrality proponents including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Given that Johnson’s argument favors deregulation of ISPs, many of which applauded a recent court ruling that would limit expansion of municipal broadband, that seems unlikely.

Turning back to adjusting the metaphor, we could instead say that a large corporation built and manages the bridge, and like many other small communities, these town folk rely on this sole access provider to all of the businesses on the other side of the bridge. As the town became more reliant on resources coming across the bridge, the local government decided to enact bridge regulations to make sure the citizens continued to have access. (Private ownership of real bridges can cause problems, too, as has been the case with the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit).

…the local government is going to require that that bridge is open to the entire community of a million people, no prioritization whatsoever.”

The regulations that the local government might enact to govern bridge management are meant to reflect the Open Internet Rules of 2015, a highly technical and complex 400 page order which Johnson’s metaphor reduces to a single sentence. It is true that, in the midst of those 400 pages (paragraph 18, pg 7) that order does forbid “paid prioritization.” However, having established that this bridge was in fact not built by a couple dozen community members but rather huge corporations, this service being open and non-prioritized doesn’t sound so bad. Perhaps realizing this, Johnson further colored the story later in the hearing by saying that without any prioritization, medical records could not receive network priority over pornography. Actually, as explained by Ar Technica’s Jon Brodkin, this concern actually is addressed in the Open Internet Order (see non-BIAS services, page 96).

We can add in a few of the key points from the Open Internet Rules into the metaphor pretty easily. Let’s say the local government has laid out a few key rules for the bridge operators, picking up with our Netflix example from before: the bridge operators can’t slow down or limit Netflix’s movie deliveries to discourage the customer from using Netflix (otherwise known as “throttling”), and they can’t stop Netflix from using the bridge unless they are doing something illegal (“blocking”). Bridge operators also can’t charge for “fast lanes,” – AKA paid prioritization – so that if you decide to start your own movie delivery service, you won’t have to pay the fast lane fee to compete with big companies like Netflix that are big enough to pay the fee or work out a deal. By leaving out these details, Johnson has streamlined his critique of the Open Internet Rules to a single, mischaracterized issue.

Even this expansion of the metaphor, though, doesn’t hit on key points of the Open Internet Rules, such as the application of Common Carrier status to ISPs, which gave the FCC the right to regulate ISPs. Johnson, whose Senate committee published a report condemning President Obama’s influence on this reclassification, conspicuously omitted specific mention of this issue in his metaphor. Confoundingly, analogizing ISPs with a bridge seems to fly in the face of his position that ISPs should not have been reclassified: isn’t a bridge the quintessential common carrier, affording passage without discimination towards a certain company or type of frieght?

Johnson isn’t concerned with glossing over these kind of details because he was never trying to put forward a real policy position: he was reframing the narrative, creating a new image that Open Internet Rule opponents could use to compete with the frame of “net neutrality.”

With this in mind, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s response to Johnson is less surprising. Pai absolutely DOES understand how the Internet works and therefore how bad this metaphor was, yet he proceeded to nod in agreement with Johnson, saying that Johnson had “put [his] finger on one of the core concerns.” Pai, whose recent appointment was supported by Johnson, has been openly critical of the Open Internet Rules since they were published. Simply put, Johnson and Pai are going to be working together to convince the American public that “net neutrality,” as it exists today, is a bad thing, so even if Johnson’s metaphor is off-base technically, legally, socially, and economically, why would Pai correct him?

 

Chairman Pai went on to say that “all of us favor a free and open Internet where consumers can access lawful content of their choice.” Pai and Senator Johnson hold a shared belief that the best way to keep the Internet “free and open” is to encourage competition through deregulation. They are going to promote that position through FCC and Congressional action, and they are going to use metaphors like Johnson’s to convince the American public that their approach is the correct one. Companies, organizations, and individuals who hold a different view of how best to ensure the Internet remains “free and open” would do well to not simply write off their political opponents as ignorant. Johnson isn’t trying to impress democratic bloggers or progressive think tanks, he’s trying to shape this debate in the minds of the American people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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