What's the best analogy for the Net Neutrality mess?

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler gives testimony before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee hearing on 'Review of the President's FY2015 funding request and budget justification for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).'on March 27, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. 

Ben Johnson

Truth: sometimes we journalists get tired of reporting a story. And I'll admit it -- trying to describe Net Neutrality a different way every day this week hasn't been easy. But most people we talk to about the issue of whether Internet service providers should deliver all data to the user with equal speed agree it's significant -- maybe the most significant Internet issue of the decade.

For as long as we've all been online, we've basically been able to access web pages with equal speed -- no matter what web page we're trying to get to and what company is helping us get there. But that could be changing; today's Federal Communications Commission vote on new Open Internet Rules could allow for so-called "fast lane" deals, where a company like Netflix pays a company like Verizon or Comcast to make sure you don't get the spinning pinwheel of sadness. Many people say these deals would stifle innovation (making it hard for the next Netflix-like startup to get off the ground without forking over money it doesn't have yet), and allow service providers to degrade the quality of our connections. Others say that more oversight from the FCC would do the same. It's always super helpful when two sides in a debate use the exact same potentialities to argue their case, isn't it?

But the real question is this: what analogy is best for this big, hot mess? Because a hot mess it is. And part of the mess is that it's so hard to describe and understand. On Wednesday, Sen. Al Franken told me Internet service providers should be considered common carriers -- just like the companies that have covered the country in a web of phone lines. He's even made a video to promote his position: 

 

On today's show, University of Pennsylvania professor Christopher Yoo explains his opposition to that idea by comparing the Internet to the postal service. Sometimes, Yoo says, you should be allowed to pay extra for FedEx or Priority Mail Express, so that your package gets to its destination faster than it would with regular old snail mail. Maybe it's like electricity?

I was arguing with Stacey Vanek Smith a few weeks back about Netflix making a deal with Comcast and trying to use the highway analogy -- but I got fouled up trying to decide who the toll booth operators were. I was talking with Vox managing editor Nilay Patel this week -- he thinks the FCC is about to turn the Internet into airport security.

The idea I keep coming back to is that of the Gordian knot -- an intractible problem that seems like it should have a simple solution. But a simple solution isn't in sight, so that doesn't work. So I put it to you: how would you describe the movement of information on the Internet? And what does that say about your position in the debate? 

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.
Ben Johnson

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