The Master Switch: Tim "Net Neutrality" Wu explains what's at stake in the battle for net freedom

By Cory Doctorow

Tim Wu's The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires is as fascinating, wide-ranging, and, ultimately, inspiring book about communications policy and the information industries as you could hope to find. This is, of course, no surprise: Wu is one of America's great information policy scholars and communicators, probably best known for coining the term "Net Neutrality" (like many great Americans, Tim is, in fact, Canadian -- we attended the same elementary school in Toronto, where we enthusiastically traded Apple ][+ software and killed each others' D&D characters).

Wu's great strength is in the breadth of his scholarship and in his ability to use humor, clear language, and innovative arguments to connect diverse ideas. Thus in Master Switch, we have a brilliant explanation and history of what Wu calls "the Cycle," through which information industries rise, consolidate, monopolize, capture governments, force out competitors, and, eventually, fragment into something less grandiose, less perfect, but more vibrant, open, and innovative.

Wu connects the industrial and informational monopolies of AT&T, the film trust, the exhibitors monopoly, the radio monopoly, the fight over FM, the censorship of the Hays Code for film-makers, the liberation of the Hayes Code for operating modems, the dashed hopes for a diverse and vibrant cable TV landscape, and, ultimately, the invention of the Internet. On the way, he makes a convincing case that information industries are different -- the basis for every political revolution, every genocide, a "claim that can't be made of orange juice, heating oil, running shoes, or dozens of other industries."

The uniqueness of communications as an industry means that regulation and markets fail more often around them, and that the failures are worse. In response to this, Wu builds the case for a set of principles around information industry ownership, concentration, and structure, and proposes that these be regulated largely by an "information morality" -- not by a single regulatory agency or a single statute book, but ultimately by an emergent consensus about the value of information freedom as a vital substrate for free speech and free societies.

Tim has done rather a lot to this end already, simply by coining the idea of "Net Neutrality" -- an elegant restatement of the End-to-End Principle, couched in terms that laypeople can understand. One of my favorite interactions with corporate flacks in recent years was a phone call I had with a PR guy at Virgin Media, the UK cable operator whose CEO publicly declared war on Net Neutrality and promised that customers like me would be bought and sold like commodities by our ISPs and "content providers. The flack tried to obfuscate the question (a reliable PR trick) by saying that Net Neutrality was an ambiguous term that no one could agree upon. I was delighted to be able to tell this gentlemen than the term had been coined by someone I'd known since I was nine years old, that it was short and sweet, and was well-understood as a term of art among the still-living creators of the Internet, the Web, and TCP/IP, and to offer to give him their email addresses if he needed it explained to him.

In Master Switch, Tim gives us a glimpse into his vast and broad knowledge of communications policy and its history, the groundwork that gave rise to his ideas, and presents an inspiring path to a better world of better networks (even as he shows the risks of not taking such a path). He makes the convincing case that the Net is different, that its stakes are higher than any communications battle in memory, though the form of the battle is a familiar one.

Wu is that rare animal, an accomplished scholar who can write about complex ideas in ways that are accessible to all. And the ideas he's covering are as important as any in our ideological marketplace today.

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

Published 6:00 am Mon, Nov 1, 2010

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

5 Responses to “The Master Switch: Tim "Net Neutrality" Wu explains what's at stake in the battle for net freedom”

  1. Avram / Moderator says:

    the censorship of the Hays Code for film-makers, the liberation of the Hayes Code for operating modems

    Nicely done.

  2. Anonymous says:

    just read it a couple of weeks ago. Fascinating. I never knew that some farmers in 1900 made their own phone networks running on barbed wire fences.. Of course they all got squeezed out by AT&T.

    Also didn’t realize that AT&T managed to get back together again after the breakup – and their complicity in spying on citizens for the US government.
    Also makes one think twice before getting an Iphone.

  3. Anonymous says:

    With all respect, could someone please explain how an “emergent consensus” will help us when the oligarchs who own most of the media and infrastructure, including the ‘net, aren’t part of it?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Engadget’s interview of Wu is a must-watch for anyone who cares about network neutrality.

    http://www.engadget.com/2010/09/24/engadget-explains-net-neutrality-and-our-full-interview-with/

  5. pjcamp says:

    “an emergent consensus about the value of information freedom as a vital substrate for free speech and free societies. ”

    I have a hard time seeing the role money plays in something like this. And there is one hell of a lot of money at stake here, money that depends on a lack of consensus continuing to exist. It’s really no accident that the idea of net neutrality was shot down by the Roberts court.

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