Senator Has a Terrible Analogy About the Internet and Bridges He'd Like You to Hear

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

When it comes to the internet, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) is, it appears, dumb. Real dumb.

Commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission appeared yesterday before the Senate Commerce Committee, and members of the world’s greatest deliberative body had their chance to grill them and get the answers that the people of this great nation need.

Johnson, meanwhile, used this rare opportunity to be a complete dunce about net neutrality. Johnson was, in his own words, “trying to convey why [net neutrality] harms investment and innovation,” and in doing so embarked upon the most misguided analogy we’ve heard since the late Senator Ted Stevens called the internet “a series of tubes”:


The distinguished senator from Wisconsin thinks net neutrality is like if “a group of neighbors want to build a bridge,” but then “they find out the local government is going to require that [the] bridge is open to the entire community of a million people,” and now “a million people can come onto their property, ruin their lawns, and walk over that bridge.” Think of the lawns!

There are a lot of problems with this. First, the internet is not a bridge, what the hell? A million people using the internet isn’t the same as a million people on a bridge. Second, bridges are built by the government, not by private companies. That’s like, the main thing about bridges, is that they’re publicly owned and maintained. That’s why “roads and bridges” is the go-to example for infrastructure spending. Third, wouldn’t it be kind of fucked up if a private company built a bridge and then charged different people different amounts to cross it? And what is the lawn, in this analogy? What lawn is being ruined? Is it mine? I don’t even have a lawn. Should I get a lawn and use the internet on it?

Johnson, who has surely never watched porn, asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai whether net neutrality meant, for example, doctors using the internet for remote diagnostics would have to “share that same pipeline, no prioritization, with people streaming illegal content or pornography.” What if I need porn for medical reasons, Senator? Checkmate.

Pai, meanwhile, chairman of the body that will decide the fate of net neutrality, did not laugh the question out of the room but told Johnson he had “put [his] finger on one of the core concerns.” We’re screwed.


Splinter politics writer.

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The problem is that the internet, or at least the access to it, is controlled by businesses, Verizon, AT&T, Spectrum (formerly Time Warner).

Imagine if our roads were built and run by private companies?

Well, actually, we sort of can, but we have to look at Railroads. Most of the tracks were built and are owned by private companies, Union Pacific, etc. These railroad companies do charge for the use of their track.

But, and this is terribly important, they are tightly regulated. Trains have sort of fallen off the radar, so no one really cares about Train regulations, but if they want to make analogies, they need to make analogy comparing Railroads to the internet.

If you want access to railroad tracks to run trains, then you have to deal with the companies that own the lines. You cannot just build a train, and dump it on a track and run it anywhere you want.

Trains can be said to be part of our infrastructure, but they are not publically owned.

If you want access to the internet, you pretty much have to go to those companies that control access. Public WiFi is not yet a big enough thing for most people to go completely without an internet provider.

When the government wanted to promote the railroads, they gave railroad companies huge incentives. In those early days, in the 19th Century, it was mostly in land grants. Every mile of railroad track laid entitled the company to a certain acreage of land, which the railroads sold to pay for the expansion.

But, when the railroads tried to gouge farmers to get their produce to market, the government stepped in and legislated regulations that protected the farmers.

When railroads tried to gouge passengers, the government stepped in and created regulations. In England, they had to mandate that the railroads who were chartered had to provide passenger service, as well as hauling freight. I am not sure this ever happened in the US.

On the internet, businesses are the farmers, and we are the passengers in this analogy, and what the Republicans are trying to do is let the Providers gouge both sides of this equation.

One big difference is that in the 19th Century, Railroads were considered essential. They were the only effective way to get goods to market. They were the only fast efficient way to travel, and it was considered imperative that they be regulated so that it was fair for everyone.

I do not think that those trying to deregulate the internet consider it essential. Important? Certainly. Essential? That can be argued.

Until the Internet is considered essential, like electricity, and water, it will be under threat. If we accept that it is an essential utility, like electricity and water, then clearly we must have regulations that ensure that it is fair for everyone.

And that means Net Neutrality.