Series of Tubes

ted stevens by Chris Pirillo

Series of tubes‘ is a phrase coined originally as an analogy by then Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to describe the Internet in the context of opposing network neutrality.

In 2006, he used this metaphor to criticize a proposed amendment to a committee bill that would have prohibited Internet service providers such as AT&T and Verizon Communications from charging fees to give some companies higher priority access to their networks or their customers. This metaphor has been widely ridiculed as demonstrating Stevens’s poor understanding of the Internet, despite the fact that he was in charge of regulating it. 

‘Ten movies streaming across that, that Internet, and what happens to your own personal Internet? I just the other day got… an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday. I got it yesterday [Tuesday]. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.’ ‘They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.’

Most writers and commentators derisively cited several of Stevens’s misunderstandings of Internet technology, arguing that the speech showed that he had formed a strong opinion on a topic which he understood poorly (e.g., referring to an e-mail message as ‘an Internet’ and blaming bandwidth issues for an e-mail problem much more likely to be caused by mail server or routing issues). ‘The Internet is a Series of Tubes!’ became a slogan that is a rallying cry for Net neutrality advocates. Stevens’s overly simplistic description of the Web’s infrastructure made it easy for pro-neutrality activists to label the other side as old and out-of-touch. The term pipe is a commonly used idiom to refer to a data connection, with pipe diameter being analogous to bandwidth or throughput. For instance, high-bandwidth connections are often referred to as ‘fat pipes.’

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