Tim Wu in the Guardian

The Guardian has a great profile of Tim "Master Switch" Wu, the activist scholar who coined the term "Net Neutrality." Tim's a respected authority on the history of media regulation and consolidation, and he likes to frame the current battle for the open, free Internet in the context of the historical fights over the phone network, TV, and radio. And unlike some writers with a cursory understanding of those earlier media (which leads them to assert that the Internet is just like all the media that went before it), Wu does a good job in explaining why the Internet is different. He doesn't argue that the Internet is invulnerable to corruption or corporatisation, but he understands why this would be a greater loss than the losses in other media, and has concrete ideas about how to fight back (he's just been appointed to the US Federal Trade Commission).
If it does, says Wu, what's at stake is the principle on which the internet was founded. At its inception, "the internet was typically a place where you could put up content without anybody's permission". But partnerships between the bigger web-related companies might squeeze out the smaller ones. Using the example of the online news industry, Wu suggests that if newspapers were to follow the example of Rupert Murdoch's new iPad-based "paper", The Daily, and "become exclusive partners with Apple, it may be easier for them to make money, but we may also end up with a media on the internet that is significantly more closed than it is now." This is because, he says, "You can imagine a future where blogs don't really have a meaningful future, because the content provided on a platform [such as Apple] doesn't create any room for anyone other than its exclusive media partners." So, Wu concludes: "The internet as a forum for speech, as a place where an individual with a talent can compete with a major newspaper - I'm suggesting that model may be passing."

But though the internet was a freer place in its younger days, I ask Wu, wasn't it only available to a privileged few? Big conglomerates may be growing ever powerful, but haven't they at least brought the internet to a much wider audience than the academics and techies of the early 90s? "It shouldn't be a trade-off," Wu replies. "There is some truth to the idea that companies are interested in consumers, and so they bring [the internet] to a broader marketplace - but it is still important to stand up for the original values of the internet." Wu sees these values "as fundamental to a free society", values that we should preserve even as the internet becomes "a mass consumption product. And I think it's possible. You don't have to throw those values out the window just because millions of people are using it."

The Wu master

(Image; Linda Nylind for the Guardian)


  1. “He feels government and consumers have a dual responsibility to police this conflict.”

    This is where Mr. Wu makes his mistake. The examples he cites, such as AT&T and television, were the result of government regulation developed and enforced by people just like himself. AT&T was a government-granted monopoly because people in the government thought that was the best way to get a good and fair system. Many of the broadband access problems we have today are the end result of government-enforced franchise rules that were originally designed to provide fair and open access to cable TV for everyone.

    Further, the iPhone example he cites as evidence of consolidation has already crumbled, with the iPhone being available on Verizon and Google’s open Android phones developing in a dozen different directions. Google and Apple aren’t monopolies any more than AOL and Microsoft were before them – there are hundred companies waiting in the wings to take their markets if they don’t provide what people want.

    M”When we talk about the internet,” he [Mr. Wu] says, “we’re only talking about three or four companies . . . Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook.” The fact is that he couldn’t be more wrong. There are literally hundreds of thousands of successful companies and groups on the Internet providing a fantastic variety of goods and services. If Amazon, Google, Apple, or Facebook stop providing what people want, the next Barnes and Noble, Bing, Yahoo, Netflix, or MySpace will eat them for lunch – and rightly so. Mr. Wu should take a good look at who is supporting his “Net Neutrality” efforts, because they are doing what big companies do, using government to suppress competition. They are looking to use him to establish the very government control over their markets that he is so critical of.

  2. Mr. Wu, like many who want to claim a “special” status for their pet technology, is wrong on many points. I’ll focus on one; I am a medievalist by trade, and software guy from early on. There is no reason that one could call the internet any different in material points from any other technology. The issue of net neutrality is the same as vernacular translations of the Bible or the printing press: who has the information and ability to disseminate it has power.

    Authority (here understood as wealthy/elite) will always try to game the system to support their own interests to the detriment of others. Nothing new there; as the first poster points out, there is always however, some other opposed Authority who will seek to take advantage of such system gaming in such a way as to create an alternative method, or even a restriction on the gaming.

    This says nothing about the lesser organized citizens who will also enable various methods of using the system against the intention of those who seek to exclude. This includes, but is not limited to using tools in ways contrary to their intent (see: jailbreaking technology) and developing alternative modalities (see: underground publishing).

    Mr. Wu is free to advocate all he wants… why not? His claims to understand the internet in some way that we (the implied little people) don’t is insulting at best.


  3. “You can imagine a future where blogs don’t really have a meaningful future, because the content provided on a platform [such as Apple] doesn’t create any room for anyone other than its exclusive media partners.”

    Really? I have a hard time imagining Apple killing Safari and somehow preventing users from installing another browser, which (AFAIK) is the only way they could prevent users from accessing blogs and the rest of the internet (including Apple.com).

    I’m supposed to be afraid of hard-to-imagine things that might happen, and so support government regulation of the internet in the name of “fairness” and “neutrality”? Sorry, not buying it. Let’s wait for an actual problem that can’t be solved any other way, before we give the government more power, OK?

  4. Where is everyone? Only 3 posts, and they’re all by libertarians.
    You guys are wrong *and* Tim Wu is wrong on one particular point.

    First, @Tim Wu: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon??? These are the
    “Big Four”??? Are you kidding? AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and TimeWarner
    are the guys who control the pipes. And Last I checked, Microsoft still
    has at least 85% marketshare. I don’t say Apple and Google are angels,
    but I thought Net Neutrality was about who controls the pipes, no?
    Maybe his quote was taken out of context; I’m sorry if I disrespect
    the very person who literally wrote the book on NN.

    Now to you guys: Net Neutrality isn’t about giving the government
    the power to “regulate” the Internet. It’s about preventing consolidation
    of power in one or a few entities; whether it’s government or private
    corporations, the principle is the same. To suggest that Net Neutralitists
    want to shift power entirely from AT&T & Comcast to US.Gov is a false
    dichotomy, and a very unfair one. Let’s get one thing clear, so we’re on
    the same page – We don’t trust the government any more than you do!
    But if we are a nation of laws, someone has to enforce them, no?

    Net Neutrality is precisely the principle that *allows* the “next Barnes
    and Noble, Bing, Yahoo, etc.” to exist and thrive on their own merits.

    @Anon: Mr. Wu understands the Internet in ways *most* “little people”
    don’t. Perhaps you’re smarter than the rest, but most people are ignorant,
    and Comcast’s and AT&T’s accumulation of power, their stated intent to
    dismiss NN, and their recent behavior go unchecked.

    1. Net Neutrality isn’t about giving the government the power to “regulate” the Internet. It’s about preventing consolidation of power in one or a few entities

      And how do you do that without giving the government power to regulate the internet? You can say that’s not what it’s “about,” but isn’t regulation the proposed mechanism to prevent this (so far not problematic) “consolidation of power”?

  5. AT&T Verizon, Comcast etc.. control the pipes in the US. but not worldwide.

    Wu’s point about the big 4 – google, apple, facebook, amazon, ebay, etc. is that pretty much each specific industry is dominated by one major company. Online auction – ebay. Search engine – Google, and while anyone is free to start up a company or website – its pretty hard

    and by the way AT&T though broken up in the 80s- has mostly gotten back together again to dominate the pipes. Wu’s book the Master Switch examined the cycle of communication networks – telephone, movies, radio, television etc.. and there is a pattern.. Usually a free for all with amateurs getting into it – such as the early farmers phone networks that ran on barbed wire.. or early radio..
    giving way to RCA and restricted control of the airwaves. And each time one (or a handful of) industry came to dominate the medium – and ultimately stifling innovation such as answering machines, television, cable, fm radio etc.. all these things came much later than they could have because the dominant industry didn’t think it was useful or viewed it as a threat. Answering machines could have been available in the 30s instead of the 70s for chrissake.

    The way Apple is behaving fits exactly the pattern or RCA or AT&T, sure the products are slick and beautifully designed but you get what Apple wants you to get. Microsoft wanted to do the same in the 90s with the browser wars.

    Finally I don’t believe Tim is arguing for gov’t regulation – in fact the threat of regulation or loss of market share may do the job. Perhaps the internet and the web thanks to its original open development is different, since it isn’t really that easy to control.

  6. After reading Tim Wu’s rather incoherent article “How AT&T Shut Down the Development of Magnetic Tape” http://gizmodo.com/#!5699159/how-ma-bell-shelved-the-future-for-60-years

    In which he seems to make some fundamental mistakes about the history of magnetic tape, the rate that it was adopted, and where it was invented.

    Made me really question whether he actually knows what he’s talking about, or whether he just really knows how to try and make points that seem supportive of his policies.

  7. “Big conglomerates may be growing ever powerful, but haven’t they at least brought the internet to a much wider audience than the academics and techies of the early 90s? “It shouldn’t be a trade-off,” Wu replies”

    It is so sad that he even has to “go there”.

    And, what is with the first 3 comments here? You guys just don’t get it (or, you are sock-puppets for the corporate forces who are the problem.)

  8. It’s late and I’m tired, which is my excuse for not adding a link to a Tim Wu debate I watched 2 months or so ago – might have been FORA or BookTV.

    Anyhow, the event was billed as a book release self-promotion talk for “Master Switch”. It was actually a quasi-debate with Tim Wu and Richard John taking different tacks in describing the history of the intertubes from then until now – with “then” becoming an increasingly nebulous point in time and techno-volution.

    I must say, I found Prof. John to be more conversationally adept and masterful in connecting the specifics of his soliloquy and parries with Wu. Conversely, Wu’s initial framing of the discussion/debate in his opening remarks was sloppy, opaque and sufficiently jargony that my BS detector nearly broke its spring. Worse yet, his direct and in-direct parries and volleys with Prof. John (or mediator) were pallid and poorly constructed. In short, Wu was underwhelming – to say the least.

    Although the event wasn’t what I expected in style or outcome, I’m delighted to have given it my attention. A number of John’s assertions, historical reference points and threads of argument were refreshingly well-informed and lucidly connected. Wu, not so much.

    1. wphurley – my bs detector is on right now – why don’t address some salient points rather than ‘I found … more convincing than …’
      which is essentially saying nothing.
      Have you read the master switch? I thought Tim was right in his observation that various communication industries – whether telephone, radio, tv ultimately end up being dominated by a handful of big players who ultimately stifle or slow down development. eg answering machines, fm radio, cable etc.
      microsoft tried to do it with its browser, and apple is doing the same.

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