Net Neut(e)rality

Tubal litigation, personal internets, and the FCC

It’s fair to say that—once again—keeping the internet “open” is a hot-button issue in the United States.

The White House has even come to the defense of net neutrality, with President Obama publishing a piece on Medium last week outlining his position.

But before we enter the debate, let’s take a step back.

Until 2010, when the FCC attempted to make broadband service providers play fair with others, there weren’t any rules.

There were only tubes.

In 2006, Ted Stevens, then-chair of the Senate Commerce Committee famously quipped:

“The internet is a series of tubes.”

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As meme-worthy as this quote may have been, the late Stevens’ remarks made obvious just how much the policymakers in charge of regulating the internet actually knew about it.

In Wired’s Your Own Personal Internet,” a transcript of Stevens’ talk provides his rationale against Netflix’s streaming service and the pro-neutrality amendment that was deadlocked in his committee.

There’s one company now you can sign up and you can get a movie delivered to your house … but this service is now going to go through the internet … and guess what you can order ten of them delivered to you and the delivery charge is free.

Ten of them streaming across that internet and what happens to your own personal internet?

Your own personal internet?

According to Stevens, tubes were personal property that shouldn’t be touched by others without consent. Especially by people like Netflix.

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Eight years later, the tubes are still around. There are now personal internets available for everyone who can afford them. In fact, people use the tubes more than ever.

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By Jeff Ogden (W163) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


In a way, Stevens was right. There is an enormous amount of material—and it is streaming everywhere.


I mean, these days, you can’t put your finger on anything without touching other people’s tubes and infringing on their personal internets.

This has turned the tubes into a lightning rod.


A few months ago, Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver poked a bit of fun at the FCC, claiming that

“the internet isn’t broken, but the FCC is taking steps to fix that.”

While Oliver seemed to have got a few laughs at the FCC, cable companies weren’t particularly amused.

FCC leaked emails (2014)

Fixing the Internet.

Outside of the dingo REALLY eating the baby, Oliver brings up a valid point: cable providers don’t want the FCC to fix the internet.

They want to get the internet fixed.

And they’ve made an appointment with their netranarian.*

The University of Maine’s Michael Socolow, writing for Slate’s Future Tense, predicts that the late Stevens will end up victorious.

“The Internet’s Tubes Will Be Unclogged”

What’s happened is that the tubes have become too good at filling everybody’s needs. People love the tubes.

So the cable companies—archenemy of the tubes—figure that having the FCC neuter the net is the easiset way to fix their problem.

“If you’re a cable company, it’s all about content. That is the original sin of the way we get access to the Internet in this country,” says David Weinberger.

You see, once the internet gets fixed, internet providers can charge people for each and every one of their streams. This includes the streams that they actually use, and—like cable television—all of the ones they don’t.

The whole package.

Tie the tubes, problem solved.

The way I see it, you can’t fix the internet by having it fixed. Once you start screwing around (see diagram below), it gets messy quick.

And more tubal litigation won’t solve the problem.

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Undersea Fiber Optic Cable Connector

Before the FCC gets snippy, it’s good to remember there is no such thing as a personal internet.

Online—one way or another— everybody’s tubes end up touching.

*not an actual word.

Written by

Professor and researcher in news, journalism, and #hashtags. Award-nominated data journalist. Media, communication, and technology.

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