For a long time the received wisdom about net neutrality, for those who tried to talk about it in so-called mainstream venues, went as follows: First, the average person did not know what it was and, if told, would be so bored that he would be physically unable to continue the conversation. Second, the only way around this was with some kind of unwieldy metaphor, preferably one that required a video animation of trucks and packages and sad stick figures sitting in houses waiting for those trucks. Here are just a few examples of what I mean.
And now Ted Cruz has gone and proved them right.
“Net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet,” he tweeted Monday, after President Obama came out in favor of forceful net neutrality measures, urging the FCC to treat Internet service providers as common carriers. “The Internet should not operate at the speed of government.”
So begins the battle for the metaphor. This is one we have to win, or we will be stuck doing something nonsensical like adding “-gate” as a suffix to every scandal from now until Doomsday. The frame for the debate matters a great deal. Remember “death panels”?
Analogies can be made about anything. Life is not remotely like a box of chocolates, except in the sense that both will eventually kill your dog. Maybe net neutrality, to Ted Cruz, is Obamacare for the Internet: It is also something that took him a while to read and upset him… for the Internet. Net neutrality, like Obamacare, is a set of ideas that people on both sides of the aisle supported until President Obama got behind it.
Maybe it is Obamacare for the Internet in the sense that it is saying that Internet, like health care, is something that should be delivered to all Americans in a standard way, without gatekeepers, but that he worries that preventing providers from being able to discriminate in certain ways (whether by traffic shaping or turning away those with pre-existing conditions) will actually lead to greater inefficiency and make things harder in unforeseeable ways.
That could almost work! But no: Here’s his spokeswoman Amanda Carpenter on Twitter: “Net neutrality puts gov’t in charge of determining pricing, terms of service, and what products can be delivered. Sound like Obamacare much?”
Okay. Well. If that’s how you’re going to be.
See, Cruz and Carpenter are just wrong. This is why we can’t have nice things. Instead of saying “A is like B in specific ways! Let’s talk about those,” we have moved the conversation to “A is like B in the sense that I dislike the source of both A and B, and I will now just throw out anything I can come up with to justify that.”
This is what comes of removing analogies from the SAT! This is the life we have to look forward to, when we will be assaulted on every side by metaphors that are technically correct in some small way but miss the larger point, similes that obscure rather than describe. Net neutrality is about cars and roads and delivery trucks. Or tubes, a whole series thereof.
To be fair to net neutrality, bad analogies are everywhere, all the time. Twitter has noticed this. If you’re pitching a new product, it has to be “uber, but for dating” or “uber, but for people who want lyfts instead of ubers.” But can we call a halt before this turns into “net neutrality will fill your grandpa’s driveway with DEATH PANELS”?
Look, there’s a debate to be had on this. On the one hand, there is a general consensus that outright blocking or discriminating against any kind of content is wrong. On the other hand, is there something to be said for paying for a “fast lane” to speed up your data if you are a site that’s responsible for a lot of data? To use one of those dreaded analogies, if you are constantly driving huge trucks, full of big deliveries of pornography, along a road, why shouldn’t you have to pay more for the road’s upkeep?
I am a big fan of net neutrality, as an outcome. We should want an agency that can actually enforce net neutrality if companies fall short. Anything short of that seems unlikely to hold up in court. But the actual underlying problem is encouraging investment in Internet infrastructure and innovation so that we get quick, non-discriminatory access to the whole Internet. We should not have the ninth-fastest Internet in the world, nor should it be so wildly overpriced. We are America, dang it! (Perhaps net neutrality is like Obamacare, in the sense that it is something we are undertaking it just now in America while in other countries they seem to have things in hand much better, but then again those countries are also smaller.)
And although I like the idea of an FCC that can actually enforce net neutrality, nothing fills me with abject terror quite so much as the sentence “and now, the Internet must be brought into compliance with something written in 1934.” Somehow, that part of common carrier classification doesn’t quite scream “innovation and efficiency.”
Then again, not since I hung out with an ill-behaved toddler have I heard someone talk about innovating the way the cable companies seem to. They’re like those divas who won’t perform unless they have a clear line of sight to a bowl of green M&M’s, because that is what they are used to, except that instead of green M&M’s what they have gotten used to is “no regulation, ever.” “If you so much as hint at regulating ANYTHING,” they yawn, “who knows — I may no longer feel like innovating. You wouldn’t want me not to innovate. You must be careful not to upset me or I’ll just sit here and never lay new cable anywhere again. You won’t like me then!”
“We don’t like you now,” Americans reply. Cable companies rank somewhere below Satan and herpes on a national approval scale. But the thought that maybe, just maybe, there is something even worse keeps us from pulling that regulatory trigger.
It seems unlikely that the answer is “just rolling over and letting the cable companies go on as they have been doing.” The amount of money they are spending on lobbying congress could buy all kinds of things — maybe even something crazy like miles of fiber-optic cable! But maybe there’s a way to innovate out before exercising this “nuclear option.”
My point is, there’s room for an interesting debate. But calling it “Obamacare for the Internet” is not the way of making this argument productive. This analogy is like saying that life is a bowl of cherries: It is a bad analogy.