The phrase “series of tubes” was used in 2006 by U.S. Senator Ted Stevens to describe the Internet. The phrase quickly became a popular catchphrase both on and off the Web. It was seen as an inaccurate metaphor at best, and was often used to characterize the senator as technologically deficient. Ironically, as chair of a US Senate communications committee, Stevens was nominally in charge of regulating the Internet. Comedians, satirists and commentators soon began using “series of tubes” to ridicule Stevens, the American government, and technology management in general.
On 28 June 2006, Senator Stevens addressed the U.S. Senate in regard to a communications bill designed to regulate Internet commerce. At issue was “net neutrality,” a hotly debated issue over government regulation of bandwidth use. Stevens, a Republican from Alaska who had served in the Senate since the 1960s, was chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Voicing his opposition to such government regulation, Stevens delivered an 11-minute oratory in which he said, “The Internet is…not a truck, it's a series of tubes.” He also referred to an e-mail from his staff as “an Internet.”
Stevens’ remarks were recorded and broadcast as part of regular news coverage of congressional hearings. Technology writers and humorists alike quickly seized on Stevens’ apparently incomplete understanding of Internet technology. Jokes were made about the senator’s age, awkward use of technical terms, and origins in a largely rural state. Proponents of net neutrality adopted the phrase “series of tubes” to characterize their opponents as out of touch with current technological issues. The phrase came into wide use as a whimsical term for the Web, and was soon available on t-shirts.
For his part, Stevens refused to admit he had erred in his characterization of the Internet as a “series of tubes.” Wireless transmission of the Internet was in its infancy at the time, and most Internet connections depended on fiber-optic cables. Bandwidth connections were sometimes metaphorically referred to as “pipes.” The video website YouTube gained worldwide popularity in 2006, inspiring various similar sites with word “tube” in their titles. Any of these could have been what Stevens meant when he used the phrase “series of tubes.”
“Series of tubes” has become an Internet meme, a phrase that passes into common usage on the Web, sometimes without connection to its original use. Senator Stevens himself was voted out of office in 2008 after allegations of political corruption. The senator was later exonerated; he died in an Alaska plane crash in 2010. Obituaries focusing on his long political legacy did not neglect the phrase that the senator made famous.