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Net Neutrality Debate Shows Exactly “What’s in a Name”

While we await release of the text of today’s Net Neutrality order from the FCC, it strikes me as useful to take a step back and apply a broader perspective to what can be learned from the debate that led to it. While lawyers get a rush when they think they have come up with the perfect legal argument to support their client’s cause (and we’re fun at parties too!), those of us working in Washington have to concede that legal arguments are often secondary to the politics involved. Certainly, the FCC’s order will not be the last word in the Net Neutrality debate, with a number of prominent members of Congress already promising a legislative rebuke, and the near certainty of the courts being called upon to assess the FCC’s authority to adopt such rules.

In spite of the millions spent on lawyers and lobbyists on both sides of this issue, the result was in many ways preordained by the real champion in this debate, linguistics. Much of the battle was won when proponents summarized their position as being in favor of “Net Neutrality”, a term that is sufficiently innocuous yet catchy enough to crystallize the debate as being between those who want a neutral/fair apportionment of the Internet’s capabilities, and those who, well, don’t. Opponents were put instantly on the defensive, trying to explain why a neutral Internet wouldn’t be a good thing.

While other terms were also bandied about in the early days of the debate (like “broadband discrimination” or “traffic prioritization”), none had the simple positive ring (and alliteration) of Net Neutrality. “Internet Indifference” might have been a good candidate as well, but no one seems to have thought of it at the time.

Added to this linguistic head start is the fact that the concept itself is simply easier to explain in positive terms than in negative ones. Stories on the Washington Post’s website today described Net Neutrality as a regulation that “ensures unimpeded access to any legal Web content for home Internet users” and which marks “the government’s strongest move yet to ensure that Facebook updates, Google searches and Skype calls reach consumers’ homes unimpeded.” Based on that description, readers would be hard pressed to conclude that Net Neutrality is a bad thing, and much of the mainstream press used terms similar to the Post’s in describing today’s action by the FCC.

Taking the contrary position, there are two big problems with arguing that Net Neutrality is “an intrusive government interference into the management of broadband networks that will impede the evolution of new models of business on the Internet while requiring Internet innovators to first consider and navigate government regulations before implementing new Internet services.” First, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like the Post’s description of Net Neutrality. Second, it requires several additional explanations of exactly how Net Neutrality regulations would have that effect. It isn’t necessarily obvious from the statement alone.

The point of this is not to debate the merits of Net Neutrality itself, but to note that taking the time to carefully craft and package a proposal before presenting it (to the FCC or any other part of the government, including Congress) frames the debate in your favor. It is not an irrefutable advantage, but claiming the linguistic high ground forces opponents to expend far more of their resources fighting their way uphill, while the proponent conserves its legal and political resources waiting at the top. Many opponents will falter before they reach the top, and those that do make it will be exhausted from the climb.

In the case of Net Neutrality, vast resources were arrayed on both sides of the debate, but the political and public popularity engendered by the phrase “Net Neutrality” and the easily understood arguments on its behalf proved to be insurmountable today. It is safe to say, however, that opponents of Net Neutrality regulations are already regrouping for their next charge in Congress and in the courts, and that today’s skirmish was merely the first of many to come.