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."
(Image; Linda Nylind for the Guardian)