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Commentary
7/24/2006
02:33 PM
Alice LaPlante
Alice LaPlante
Commentary
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Net Neutrality: The Frenzied Search For The Perfect Metaphor

Listening to last week's lively audio debate on net neutrality between Vint Cerf and Dave Farber, I was struck (again) by something. Net neutrality. What a terrible name for such an important issue.

Listening to last week's lively audio debate on net neutrality between Vint Cerf and Dave Farber, I was struck (again) by something.

Net neutrality. What a terrible name for such an important issue.As Arianna Huffington pointed out in her blog, using the net neutrality phrase to describe the now-dormant bill of the same name was "dead legislation walking" because it failed to convey any valuable information, much less evoke an "instant and passionate gut reaction."

Which is probably why so many people have been reaching (and over-reaching) for metaphors to describe exactly what net neutrality means.

A metaphor, in case your memories of freshman composition are a little fuzzy, is the comparison of two unlike things. My love is like a red, red rose. These are the dog days of summer (and boy, are they, out here in Silicon Valley!). When used wisely, metaphors can cut through confusion and bring clarity to complex issues and situations.

Good metaphors pack an enormous emotional punch. They convince and persuade. Small wonder that both sides of the net neutrality issue are struggling to define their positions through metaphor--with varying degrees of success.

Let's start with some negative examples. There's Senator Ted Stevens' (R-Alaska) famously (or infamously) uninformed mixed metaphor when he said--and I quote--"[The Internet] is not a big truck. It's...it's a series of tubes." Even Jon Stewart of The Daily Show couldn't resist that one.

Other legislators also attempt to wax literary. Preston Gralla, in his blog, had some fun with Rep. Joe Barton's (R-Texas) attempt to rise to figurative speech when he compared net neutrality to pornography. (You'll have to read the blog to understand the nuances.)

By far the most common metaphor used by both sides compares the Internet to a highway (or superhighway). Those for net neutrality call the telcos' plans for imposing premium access surcharges the equivalent to putting up toll booths that would hinder the free flow of information. The telcos use the same metaphor to argue that they aren't negatively impacting the current infrastructure--in fact, they're adding more, faster lanes.

Another similar comparison used by opponents of net neutrality is that of an airline offering first-class, business, and economy seats to customers at different price points. Everyone still gets to the same place at the same time, they say.

Then there are those who compare the current state of the Internet to the phone system, and the telcos' vision of it to cable TV. Phone companies don't get to control what goes over their lines, whereas cable television operators do. This metaphor helps those in favor of net neutrality argue that the world needs a telephone model for the Net, not a cable model.

In one of the more widely disseminated metaphors in the blogosphere, Art Brodsky says what the telcos are trying to do is "boil the frog." The metaphor goes like this: If you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put a frog in warm water and gradually raise the temperature, it will slowly become used to it until it's completely cooked. If no net neutrality bill is passed, Brodsky argues, consumers will be gradually cooked through the deviously incremental eradication of everything we currently take for granted about the Internet.

Think these metaphors are just attempts to be witty? Think again. Who controls the metaphor defines the argument--and goes a long way to winning the debate. Indeed, so important is metaphor in this discussion that commentators are ceasing to argue about the issues as much as to argue about the comparisons being used.

A case in point: The Washington Post devoted a highly placed article to lambasting the cable vs. broadcast television metaphor. And Om Malik, in his blog, argued that people are too "married" to the metaphor of the Internet as a public space--and that clinging to that metaphor clouds their vision of what is economically feasible.

The clash of metaphors goes on and on. Check out Charles Nutter, M.E. "Liz" Strauss, and especially James Surowiecki, who in a Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker compares what the telcos are hoping to do to the practice by supermarkets and bookstores to charge fees for better placement of products. His pessimistic view of how it will all turn out is also expressed metaphorically: He believes the Internet ultimately won't resemble a superhighway as much as a "collection of Safeways."

Of course, there are the downright silly comparisons. Watch this YouTube video in which a ninja warrior delivers his metaphoric take on the issue. And--inevitably--there's Star Trek as a net neutrality metaphor. Blogger David Deans went the science fiction route also by putting net neutrality into a Star Wars context. According to him, U.S. public policy is the "Force" because it can be used for either good or evil. The FCC is the Jedi High council, and the members of Congress are the Chancellors of the Galactic Republic. Okay, I have to admit I nodded off at that point, but you can kind of see where he's going: Let's use the Force for good, which requires helpful guidance from the Chancellors. Fat chance.

What do you think? Do you have a metaphor of your own to describe the issue? Submit it below.

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