Framing Network Neutrality for the American Electorate

I originally wrote this paper for a class on conceptual metaphor taught by George Lakoff @ UC Berkeley's department of Linguistics. It borows a notation for metaphors(e.g. Affection Is Warmth), and many common conceptual systems(e.g. Moral Accounting), from Philosophy in the Flesh1. All errors are mine and mine alone.


I study technology and public policy with an emphasis on the Internet and computer networking. Network neutrality is an issue that has seen significant attention lately. It is also a topic that I have studied rather extensively from legal, economic and technical perspectives. This paper will look at the metaphors used in framing the network neutrality debate. A running theme will be how the concepts of network neutrality have been adapted to fit the political reality of the United States.

Defining Network Neutrality

Before we can get into the metaphors underlying network neutrality we need to define the term and scope the arguments of both sides. Network neutrality supporters believe that traffic on the Internet should be forwarded indiscriminately. The term derives from the English common law concept of common carrier, which dates back to the time of English monarchs. We don't know exactly which one, but some English monarch made it illegal for ferry operators to charge wealthier patrons more for their services. This common carrier concept continued into the United States where in 1887 it was codified in statute with the Interstate Commerce Act. This act established the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), an agency most famous for regulating prices of railroad freight based on common carrier principles. Then in 1934 Congress passed the Communications Act, which transformed the ICC into the FCC, the agency now responsible for regulating communications networks. The term network neutrality was first used by Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu2. Common carrier and network neutrality might have slightly different meanings to different people, but the basic idea is the same.

It's important to recognize that our concept of network neutrality derives from a concept that is hundreds of years old. Like most old legal concepts it has changed through application of case law to new technologies, but it has fundamentally remained the same idea. The essence of common carrier and network neutrality concepts is forbidding price discrimination on transport services necessary for the public good. Proponents of network neutrality believe exactly this, while opponents of network neutrality believe exactly the opposite. Proponents of network neutrality argue that price discrimination of transport should be outlawed. Opponents of network neutrality argue that, while Internet access is a vital service, regulating its price would be harmful to the public good. They argue instead that a laissez-faire approach, including price discrimination, would create a larger benefit to society by lowering costs via a liberal market mechanism.

Network Morality

The moral grounding of this concept, regardless of whether we call it common carrier or network neutrality, is rooted in concepts of fairness imposed by an authority. Proponents believe in an equality of opportunity model of fairness rooted in the moral accounting metaphor. In this model all parties are able to use and access the network equally. Proponents view the FCC as an organization tasked with ensuring this fairness through nurturing, but not meddlesome, behavior. While many proponents may view the FCC as captured by the telecommunications industry, they still see the legitimate job of the FCC as ensuring a fairness of equal distribution. This all aligns well with the nurturant parent model of governance.

In contrast, opponents believe in a scalar model of use and access. In this model a laissez- faire market determines who can use the network based on merit, where merit is measured by wealth. Opponents view the FCC as a meddlesome organization that can only ruin a natural moral ordering of the world. It's a strict father model of government where the father is seen as overpowering and psychotic. In this version of the strict father model Morality Is Obedience gets downplayed since the father cannot be relied upon. Instead the Moral Order is prominent with the market taking the place of nature in the Folk Theory of the Natural Order. The market is viewed as naturally occurring, thus the metaphor becomes The Moral Order Is The Market. Like the proponent's view, this is also rooted in moral accounting, with the main difference being the choice of fairness model.

The Internet Is A Highway System

Now that we have a basic understanding of what network neutrality is, let's look at how its most complicated nuance is explained to the public via metaphor. We're interested in it because, not only is it deployed to explain network policy implementation, but it creates entailments in the target domain that don't match entailments in the source domain. We'll call this metaphor, The Internet Is A Highway System.

In President Obama's most recent address regarding network neutrality he made the following two promises about a network neutrality future. "There are no gatekeepers deciding which sites you get to access. .. There are no toll roads on the information superhighway."3 Price discrimination via paid prioritization is then inferred by evoking "Internet slow lanes." In this metaphor network packets are cars travelling down a road, and prioritization allows some of them to travel faster than others, slowing down the cars of the majority. Obama intentionally chose "slow lanes" instead of "fast lanes" to illustrate a negative, instead of a positive, aspect of this entailment.

The biggest problem with this metaphor is that all packets travel at the same speed, they all travel at roughly the speed of light. What prioritization actually determines is which packets are dropped when links exceed carrying capacity. The Internet does not guarantee delivery, and packets regularly get dropped, but cars don't get discarded from the road if there are too many of them. Instead we get congestion and traffic backs up with cars not moving. This metaphor implies that some packets are just slightly faster than others, but all remain moving, or at least wait in line until they can move.

The reality is much more inelegant than that. When low priority packets are discarded the original sending computer has to resend them, creating yet more low priority packets that might be dropped. "Internet slow lanes" is too innocuous of a term for what is happening on the wire, and favors an anti-neutrality argument. A more accurate term might be "Internet drop precedence", "Internet caste", or "Internet service class". Assuming Obama has smart speech writers, why is he not choosing the strongest framing possible?

Network Equality

Neutrality assumes there is an existing conflict that a neutral party is abstaining from. However, in the case of network neutrality, the conflict is in the network itself. Thus network neutrality is actually a neutral party abstaining from a conflict it itself is involved in. This doesn't make any sense! This is not the same thing as Switzerland remaining neutral during a war between France and Germany. Switzerland remains neutral by not getting involved. How can a network remain neutral when it's responsible for forwarding packets? Thus, a more accurate term for network neutrality would be network equality.

However, Obama cannot invoke any argument related to caste, class or equality in his arguments for net neutrality. Equality is viewed as disturbing the natural ordering of the market, whereas neutrality leaves the market alone. Calling for network equality would get Obama labeled a communist, and accused of inciting class warfare. Instead he needs to stick to the language of neutrality, when in fact network neutrality is about treating all packets equally, not neutrally. Thankfully the major proponents of network neutrality understand this framing dilemma, so we get arguments for neutral instead of equal networks.

Ted Cruz gets this as well when he says, "Net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet."4 This is a fallacious statement, but it possibly reveals Cruz understands that network neutrality is really about network equality. He's trying to invoke the same framing of network neutrality that worked against the Affordable Care Act(ACA). In his strict father morality, equality is a direct threat to meritocratic distribution based on The Moral Order Is The Market. He knows most of his supporters see the world like this as well, so he's attempting to frame network neutrality as an assault on the natural order. This statement is his attempt to frame the argument as constraining action by a do-gooder, nurturant parent who does more well intentioned harm than good.

Unfortunately for Ted Cruz, most of his supporters did not agree with this framing of network neutrality. Not because they don't believe in systems of meritocratic distribution, but because they know that the ACA and network neutrality have nothing to do with one another. It's an apples to oranges comparison.


I suspect, but have no real proof, that the average voter doesn't trust statements where they notice a metaphor is being used rhetorically. I posit that people are more likely to view a rhetorical statement as disingenuous when the embedded metaphor is salient. Most people don't know that it's metaphor all the way down. When they're confronted with a metaphorical explanation of a technological topic they find it disingenuous. They feel they're being tricked. Maybe they are, obviously these metaphors are being deployed rhetorically, but so is everything a politician says.

We witnessed this when Ted Stevens made his infamous, "[The Internet is] a series of tubes" statement.5 Because the metaphor was so superficial in this statement, many people found it disingenuous. For an explanatory metaphor, it's not actually that bad.

This paper is just a small example of some of the metaphors involved in the network neutrality debate. We have learned that underlying network neutrality are some primary metaphors for morality. That network "slow lanes" don't really exist, and that equality, not neutrality, is ultimately what this debate is about. We've also learned that, given American political reality, framing the discussion in terms of neutrality instead of equality is more effective for proponents.

  1. Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark, 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books. 

  2. Wu, Tim, "Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination," Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law, Vol. 2, p. 141, 2003. 

  3. Obama, Barack, Net Neutrality: President Obama's Plan for a Free and Open Internet 

  4. Cruz, Ted, Twitter 

  5. Petri, Alexander, Sen. Stevens, the tubes salute you, Washington Post, August 10, 2010. All URLs retrieved Nov 19, 2014