Network neutrality is a very important issue that suffers from terrible branding. “It’s one of those names that kind of glides by you, it doesn’t generate a lot of interest,” says David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding. “I would really consider thinking about a new phrase.” But what?
Coined by Columbia law professor Tim Wu, net neutrality refers to the principal that Internet service providers treat all content, websites, and platforms equally. It’s a principle that may now be dead: Last week a federal appeals court struck down the Federal Communication Commission’s net neutrality rules, opening the doors for providers to charge companies such as Netflix fees for faster, more seamless streaming. Consumer advocates say those costs may be passed on to customers, and that the ruling may result in a tiered Internet whose providers can even block websites at will.
The court decision has far-reaching implications, but most people aren’t paying attention. ”As advocates, [net neutrality is] a horrible term to organize around,” admits Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy at Free Press, a group that promotes universal, affordable access to the Internet. When Free Press originally began pushing the term in 2006, he says, “even Ariana Huffington wrote and said: This is an important issue, but net neutrality is a horrible term.”
To everyone’s surprise, the term caught on (to an extent), quickly gaining supporters. A handful of artists and comedians began promoting the cause. Still, Karr says that these days, “a vast majority of people wouldn’t be able to tell you what net neutrality is.” Over the years, Free Press considered replacing the term with “Internet freedom” or “equal opportunity Internet” but decided to stick with net neutrality.
Branding expert Placek says advocates should not be complacent. The issue “is really about fairness and unfairness,” he says. “‘Neutral’ just means that nobody is going to get hurt, but it doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be fair.” A far better phrase, says Placek, would be “net equality.” ”It sounds like it’s a new concept that we have to think about,” he says. “I purposely went from [words like] openness, freedom, free, fairness, to a stronger term.”
Placek isn’t surprised that phrases like ”equal opportunity Internet” didn’t take. “That would, I think, be worse than net neutrality,” he says. “Equal opportunity is just an old phrase—it’s been used, done.” As for Internet freedom: “My initial reaction is, well, the Internet is already free; you’re not moving my interest needle at all.”
Getting the right wording, Placek says, could make a world of difference. By way of example, he points out that even the phenomenal concept of black holes in space didn’t awaken public interest until scientists began referring to them as “black holes,” rather than “gravitationally completely collapsed objects.”
He suspects that introducing net equality to the policy discussion would not be difficult, especially in an age when the issue of equality is so much in the public spotlight. ”Net neutrality is not going away. I think it would take a few years for it to be totally replaced,” he says. “But my point is that more people will be interested and involved with net equality.