For years, whenever the words “net neutrality” came up on the news or in conversation, my eyes glazed over and mind wandered in a desperate search for any other topic. Even when the comedian John Oliver attempted to enliven the issue in 2014 by imagining a startup website featuring crotch injury videos and called “Nutflix,” I couldn’t bring myself to click on the video of his bit. Net. Neutrality. No thanks. Zzzzzz…
It wasn’t that I was especially disengaged or abnormally incurious — it’s just that the term is dull. Even though it’s about free and democratic use of the internet, something most ordinary users would agree with, it fails to inspire interest, let alone outrage. “‘Net neutrality’ feels like a can of old gray paint,” Eli Altman, creative director of the Bay Area-based naming and branding agency A Hundred Monkeys told The Outline. But last week’s decision by FCC chair Ajit Pai to roll back net neutrality, followed by Monday’s news that the issue could be heading to the Supreme Court, created an urgent need to understand.
This is not a problem for those who have long been engaged in the issue, like open internet advocates, Reddit users, Silicon Valley workers, and tech journalists. Those groups are knowledgeable and energized, and might roll their eyes at my complaints about accessibility. But they also need to recognize that people like me — not overly interested in tech but concerned about social justice generally — are not being being reached. The prominent Black Lives Matter activist Deray Mckesson made this point over the weekend, tweeting about the need to replace the phrase “net neutrality” with “better/new descriptors.”
It turns out not to be a very dense or complex topic, once you force yourself to read about it, as I finally did after Pai’s announcement. Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T must give everyone equal access to everything on the internet. That means that even if your ISP is owned by an ultra-conservative Christian, it can’t decide to block porn — if it’s on the internet, you have to have access to it. Your ISP also can’t prioritize some stuff over others as a way to make extra money, or to boost its own content over competitors. Imagine if Verizon made stories from Yahoo News, for example, which it owns, load very fast, while slowing down stories from competing outlets.
This has become more pressing as ISPs consolidate with content companies: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which owns a stake in BuzzFeed and Vox Media. Even Google, which has positioned itself as a disruptive ISP by providing some cities with high speed internet, has a conflict of interest because it owns YouTube. In a world without net neutrality, it could be more expensive to communicate original thoughts and feelings online as big companies would always be able to pay more for exposure.
“The name feels like it’s on both sides of the issue, and that’s a problem.”
Upon understanding that, I saw it as a freedom of speech issue. I became infuriated by the thought of my four-year-old son growing up in a world where the internet was not fair or democratic, even as it was the dominant place for discourse in the 21st century. Now we were in visceral territory ― but why had it taken so long to get there?
“Part of it is winning the battle of what picture pops into people’s heads when they hear the phrase ‘net neutrality’ and right now, that picture is boring,” Altman said. “It’s like some blank office building. It has no real emotional feeling associated with it, unless you’re really deep into this stuff and spending all of your time in it. But if you are, that’s not who the name really should be marketed to.”
The term “net neutrality” originated in academia, where Columbia professor Tim Wu coined it nearly 15 years ago — and, as Altman said with a chuckle, “professors generally are bad at naming.” I then asked Altman to brainstorm a better term, and he arrived at “data discrimination.”
“Neutrality, conceptually, is boring,” Altman said. “What picture does neutrality bring up for you? I see Switzerland. And just kind of being very calm and even-handed and not stepping out strongly one way or another. The name feels like it’s on both sides of the issue, and that’s a problem, because when you dig into what net neutrality is supposed to mean, it’s really about anti-discrimination for data. It’s about treating data equally. It’s about who decides what data … should be easily accessible. There are a lot of components to it that actually do feel powerful and emotionally engaged. And the name just doesn’t happen to strike that nerve.
“‘Discrimination’ is a strong, charged term, as it should be. It’s strong when it applies to people, and it’s strong when it applies to data, too.”
But it can be difficult to rename a product or idea once the original term has fallen into common usage. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley, tried it in 2014, when she launched a contest on Reddit to rebrand the concept.
“People who are close to the issue certainly know what the term means, but for the general public, it doesn’t ring a bell,” Eshoo told The Outline. “So that’s why I thought, well, let me go out and ask people and see what they think.”
Participants cast more than 28,000 votes for 3,671 entries, and chose “Freedom Against Internet Restrictions,” followed by “Freedom to Connect (F2C),” and “The Old McDonald Act: Equal Internet for Everyone Involved Online (EIEIO).”
None of these suggestions caught on, of course. “After seeing the ones that came in, net neutrality was clearer than some of the ones that were suggested,” Eshoo said. “I appreciate all the people that participated, but … there just wasn’t anything that caught my eye.”
As Eshoo found, and as Altman notes, renaming can be difficult after a term is already in use. “It’s tough once these terms catch on to a point of just kind of being in the zeitgeist, regardless of whether they’re well-branded or not,” Altman said.
If rebranding via name change isn’t possible, perhaps the battle for hearts and minds will be won by a move away from jargon, and toward a plainspoken explanation of the stakes. “The main goal [of rebranding] is just to reshape the discussion,” Altman said. “If you could make a different picture or set of pictures pop into people’s heads when they hear that phrase, that would be a win.”
Ultimately (and as I finally took the time to discover for myself), net neutrality is about an easily relatable goal: keeping the internet open and free.
“It just could be about protecting the internet,” Altman said. “It could just be like, these people are trying to ruin the internet. Let’s protect the internet. We like the internet.”