Apr 24, 2014 · 4 minutes

The specter haunting the idea of a free Internet takes many forms. Sometimes it looks like Comcast. Sometimes it looks like the lobbyists for various telecom companies. Other times it looks like a pedantic argument about terms like "free Internet" or "net neutrality" or "fucked." So maybe it's time to stop using those terms and figure out what we're all really talking about.

But first, it's worth exploring how these terms' vagueness has allowed companies like Comcast to threaten the free Internet while the Federal Communications Commission does nothing.

The Internet is a complex system that requires cooperation from countless companies to work. Some companies create the routers that allow your tablet to go online; others run the network that connects those routers to the Internet; other companies connect those networks to all of the websites and online services that you access once you've finally gotten your router to work.

This system makes it easy to give a company preferential treatment without technically violating net neutrality rules, which only state that Internet service providers can't charge you more for speedier access to some online services. The result is the same -- some websites and services are faster than others -- but the costs are carried by companies instead of consumers.

As Tim Fernholz and David Yanofsky wrote in a post explaining how the Internet works:

You’ll hear people say that debates over transit and peering have nothing to do with net neutrality, and in a sense, they are right: Net neutrality is a last-mile issue. But at the same time, these middle-mile deals affect the consumer internet experience, which is why there is a good argument that the back room deals make net neutrality regulations obsolete—and why people like Netflix’s CEO are trying to define “strong net neutrality” to include peering decisions.

What we’re seeing is the growing power of ISPs. As long-haul networks get cheaper, access to users becomes more valuable, and creates more leverage over content providers, what you might call a “terminating access monopoly.” While the largest companies are simply building their own networks or making direct deals in the face of this asymmetry, there is worry that new services will not have the power to make those kinds of deals or build their own networks, leaving them disadvantaged compared to their older competitors and the ISP. This means that the spirit of innovation on which the entirety of our current digital lives is built is being threatened by deals that don't technically fall under the "net neutrality" rules. It doesn't matter that the end result is the same, or that these deals will make it easier for large companies to stifle competition before it even truly begins, because of nitpicking pedants.

Those same nitpicking pedants were able to stop the FCC from enforcing harsher net neutrality rules because the commission used the wrong words in 2002. As Nilay Patel wrote when the DC circuit court ruled to vacate the FCC's net neutrality rules:

No matter how the FCC defends its rules, net neutrality regulations for information services look a whole lot like common carrier rules for telecommunications providers — and all Verizon had to do was point that out.

That’s it. That’s the whole mistake. The wrong words. The entire American internet experience is now at risk of turning into a walled garden of corporate control because the FCC chickened out and picked the wrong words in 2002, and the court called them on it twice over. You used the wrong words. The court even agreed with the FCC’s policy goals — after a bitterly fought lawsuit and thousands of pages of high-priced arguments from Verizon and its supporters, Judge Tatel was convinced that "broadband providers represent a threat to internet openness and could act in ways that would ultimately inhibit the speed and extent of future broadband deployment."

Too bad you used the wrong fucking words.

The terms we use to describe these issues directly affect our ability to defend the free Internet. If more people explored the ways that deals like the one between Netflix and Comcast threaten consumers instead of pointing out that they don't technically violate net neutrality rules, we might start a conversation that the millions of people affected by these deals can understand. If the FCC can change its laws to use the right words, it might be able to protect the Internet.

But if we continue to argue about the meaning of net neutrality to defend the actions of companies threatening the very idea of the free Internet, all we've done is split hairs while the Internet collapsed around us. This is a time for action, not a time for pedantic arguments about ultimately meaningless terms.

So let's do one of two things. We can expand the definition of "net neutrality" to include any deals or actions that threaten someone's ability to use the Internet, affect the competitive landscape, or offer preferential treatment to one company over another. Or we can stop using the term "net neutrality" altogether and come up with a term that applies to all those things.

Either option is better than what we have now. The free Internet is threatened more and more each day, and choosing semantics over meaningful debate is only going to allow the specter to continue growing in power. Words matter, but defending our ideals matters more.

 [Photo by Thomas Galvez]