Tim Wu On Net Neutrality, Information Empires and Freedom

We all know that as technology empowers us to do more, it carries with it all manner of problems. But one of our biggest pickles tends to slip right by us: We’re not free.

Mar 14 2011, 11:14pm

We all know that as technology empowers us to do more, it carries with it all manner of problems. But one of our biggest pickles tends to slip right by us: We're not free.

So argues Tim Wu, law professor, author of The Master Switch and recent appointee to the Federal Trade Commission. In the face of corporate control of the Internet, Wu's concept of "network neutrality" – the notion that networks should be equally accessible by the people using them, and that the people who own the pipes can't place restrictions on access to it or on the content that passes through it – has sparked nothing less than a philosophical war over the future of how we communicate.

Where AT&T and NBC once consolidated and dominated through their phone and television networks – arguably limiting consumer choice, keeping prices high and stifling innovation – today Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and others are marking their own territory on the web and through their proprietary services.

AT&T's recent decision to purchase T-Mobile USA – and the chomping up of content outlets by companies that provide internet access, as in the case of the Comcast-NBC merger and the sale of The Huffington Post to AOL – point to territory as familiar as it is potentially disconcerting. And as Wu told me when I sat down with him in November, we the people are already losing out, often in ways that we don't realize.

That may be because it's so tempting to think of the Internet as an open marketplace of ideas, a place where any link has as much a chance of success as any other. But the Web is only a modern update on the information conduits before it. Be it the signal networks of the telegraph or the radio, the telephone or the television, or the physical networks of skyways or railways or shipping routes or roads, or the linguistic networks of words and grammar, no medium arrives ex nihilo¬, unstructured or unbiased. When the variants of the modern Internet were born, they were more like public utlitities, established by funding from the military (ARPANET) or the academy (CERN's World Wide Web). It's tempting to wonder about where we might be today if Mark Zuckerberg had invented the Web.

But increasingly it doesn't take much imagination: Facebook is already the primary layer of the internet for millions of young and persuadable web users. Chances are they're accessing it through a smartphone outfitted with a proprietary operating system, like the iPhone: another layer. In the supposedly free marketplace of ideas of the Internet, the invisible hand has been replaced by an upper hand. Whose is it, and what does it want?

It would be foolish to assume that anything is unbiased, that anyone can operate without some conflict of interest. But as our digital tools become ever more essential, pervasive, and complex, the challenge is being able to detect those biases. Tim's solution is what he terms "the separations principle," a premise that, like the separation of Church and State, demands that the people in charge of carrying the content are not also the same ones producing it.

Though Wu's concerns and proposals are sure to inform his work as an advisor to the FTC, they face a challenge beyond the pressures of the telecom and internet industries: how much do average web users care? As long as we're able to make our cheap phone calls, send our free emails, watch our free videos, and get our free content, why should we bother? Why regulate for "network neutrality" if the system works fine the way it is?

The question is hard to answer in part because we don't yet have a firm conception of freedom when it comes to information, nor do we have a way of calculating how much "free" really costs. Even if they add up, the slight pricks we feel from smartphone operating systems we don't really control and privacy settings we don't understand are often forgotten as quickly as they arrive. As Wu argues, as much as we like to talk about freedom, we also really like convenience. Our technologies and the companies that make them are really good at providing the latter. It's not so clear, however, where the former fits in.