A Flash of the Gatekeeper’s Sword

Over a month ago, Doc Searls wrote a compelling (but long and cerebral) techno manifesto Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes for Linux Journal. It was concerning comments made in a BusinessWeek Magazine interview with Ed Whitacre, SBC (or should I say AT&T?) CEO.

Now what they [Google, MSN, Vonage] would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

CNET article Playing favorites on the Net?

Who will win this battle? Part of that will be decided by politics, but it will also be decided by the fabrication of language and framing of the argument.

Nearly a month ago, my wife and I were watching Primetime on ABC and were introduced to the ongoing story over ‘Coffin Cars’ on trains. Quick Background: The debate was over the deaths of eleven people who were seated in (or even operating) the front passenger car of a commuter train in Glendale, California. Juan Alvarez parked his SUV on the tracks and the train crashed into his vehicle, causing extensive damage to the front car because there was no locomotive at the front. The train was in what is called “push/pull” mode.

What I found most interesting about the debate was the posturing of both sides. One side argues that the use of “push/pull” mode is dangerous and makes Metrolink partially responsible for the severity of the crash. They used the term Coffin Cars to describe the front passenger car on a train in “push/pull” mode. Metrolink was represented by Francisco Oaxaca, Metrolink Manager of Media and External Communications. Oaxaca’s explanations give more of the perception of liability-avoidance rather than an earnest interest in caring for victims and protecting the safety of Metrolink’s passengers.

Since the Glendale accident, Metrolink has made an important change in the cab car: The area where people are most often hurt is now roped off.

Metrolink said it had established the area out of respect for those who died in the Glendale crash. The sign says quiet area — but critics say the more likely reason is safety.

Oaxaca said Metrolink didn’t call it a safe zone “because we can’t draw that conclusion. We’re not saying that this area is unsafe. We’re saying that until the answers are in, until the research that’s being done is in, the science has been completed we’re not taking any chances.”

What term comes to mind when you think of a commuter train without a lead locomotive?

Did you think of Quiet Area or a Coffin Car?

Also, think of the emotions established with these terms. Coffin Car gives a sense of fear. It is dark and ominous. It almost sounds like the name of a horror flick. Quiet Area, on the other hand, really doesn’t give any sense of safety or danger. It’s an ambiguous, unassuming term that is probably forgotten as quickly as it’s read.


It comes down to something Doc Searls wrote in his essay:

All due credit to the EFF, Creative Commons and every other organization in the pro-Net alliance, but there isn’t much hope of changing hearts and minds as long as we think and talk in the transport language of the telcos, cablecos and “content” producers. When we do that, we lose.

and a pull-quote in the CNET article:

“We have always said that if they want to have, say, a bronze, silver, gold level of Internet access, essentially charging more for more bits…that’s fine.”
–Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy, Amazon

Would the victims and victims’ families of the Metrolink crash adopt the term ‘Quiet Area’? Of course not. That would hinder their effectiveness. So would focusing on preventing people from parking vehicles on train tracks. They have wisely framed the issue around the safety issues of the ‘push/pull’ system.

So as this debate over a two-tiered Internet continues, we must be aware of two critical factors:

• We cannot simply adopt the language of the major Internet carriers. I don’t think we can call it ‘Tiered Internet’. It is already tiered. DialUp, DSL, Cable Modems, T1s, DS3s, OC12s, etc. Speed is already determined by how much we, and the content providers, pay. Even VoIP (Voice over IP) providers like Vonage have to increase bandwidth as they add users. Ultimately, this ‘trickles up’ to the Tier-1 level ISPs (Internet Service Providers) like SBC, AT&T, MCI, Verizon, Sprint et al.
• We cannot speak out of avoiding liability
• We have to use terms with capture the critical and EMOTIONALLY CHARGED aspects of this issue!

Framing the Issue:
• The issue cannot be framed around whether or not telcos can charge more for higher bandwidth. They already do that.
• It cannot be framed around whether or not Google, Amazon, et al get a ‘free ride’ on the telco’s pipes. It’s not free. We already pay for it.
• The issue has to be whether or not the government can allow some of the largest Internet access providers in the world to decide what content is or is not accessible… including content provided by smaller competitors.

Like I said, this isn’t about having/not having a tiered Internet. It already is tiered. This is a battle over whether or not we have an OPEN Internet. The Ed Whitacre’s of the industry want it to be a RESTRICTED Internet. A restricted Internet where they not only hold the keys, but where they’re free to swing their swords as well.

Dustin Staiger is a business and marketing coach in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, marketing, communications and creativity for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations as well as large enterprises.

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