Mid-February, Tuesday night, a downtown D.C. restaurant. Nursing a pint of Magic Hat in a back booth, Tim Wu struggles to make the transition from one of the loudest lives in academe to his new job as a quietly effective federal bureaucrat.
The Columbia Law School professor used to be his own boss, CEO of Tim Wu Inc. He made his name by coining the concept of “net neutrality,” the notion that network operators shouldn’t block or favor certain content. As an essayist based at Slate, he translated technology policy for popular consumption and chronicled an eclectic list of other obsessions: vintage Hondas and Mongolia, weight lifting and yoga, dumplings and hot springs. He broadened his audience this past fall with a sweeping new history of information empires, The Master Switch (Knopf). “He’s on the cusp of being enormously influential,” says his mentor, Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and copyright-reform advocate.
Maybe. But right now Wu is trying to be something else: boring. One day before this dinner interview, the 38-year-old professor reported for duty as a senior adviser at the Federal Trade Commission, a consumer-protection and antitrust-enforcement agency with a mandate to fight business abuses. So he clams up when I ask what must be on the minds of many tech lobbyists in town:
Which company scares you the most?
“I can’t answer that question, now I’m in the FTC,” Wu says. “I used to answer that.”
Apple and its chief executive, Steve Jobs, are the players “most interested in a complete paradigm shift” in computing, he says. They want to replace the chaotic freedom of personal computers with a new regime of controlled devices. (Picture the televisionlike iPad, with its strictly vetted App Store, and you get the idea.) It’s a familiar rap to anyone who follows these geek debates, at least until Wu pivots to Plato.
“Plato suggested that the finest form of government was dictatorship run by geniuses,” he says. “Jobs realizes that dictatorial rule, if done well, will be more popular than democracy.”
Comparing the guy who sells iPads to a dictator? If that sounds like nutty rhetoric, it’s grounded in serious fears about the future of the Web. Today’s Internet is a hotbed of democracy and innovation, where a blogger can challenge The New York Times and Twitter can come out of nowhere to change the world. But throughout modern history, Wu’s book argues, every information industry has been hijacked by some “ruthless monopoly or cartel.” It happened to the telephone. It happened to radio. It happened to film. Now, as all media converge on one network, Wu warns that “an unprecedented potential is building for centralized control over what Americans see and hear.”
Already, a group of “new monopolists” seems to reign over whole regions of the Internet: Google in search, Apple in content delivery, Facebook in social networking. And the question is whether the Net, like new media of the past, will come to be “ruled by one corporate leviathan in possession of ‘the master switch.’”
That’s the breathless book-jacket version, anyway. The Master Switch came out in November to favorable reviews, but some tech writers have skewered it. Detractors note that Wu is only the latest in a line of legal academics to prophesy a looming “Digital Dark Age of Closed Systems,” as one critic lampooned it. What the professor doesn’t get, writes Fortune, is that his historical cycle “has been broken by digital technology.”
Think of how many choices we now enjoy for telephone service or television channels, says Timothy B. Lee, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute who reviewed Wu’s book for the popular blog Ars Technica. “The trend I see is more that the technology world has just been getting steadily more open since probably the 1970s,” he tells me. “Things changed about the world several decades ago. Those earlier periods—it’s not clear how relevant they are to the present.”
As tech wonks debate his work, the more pressing issue is what might change now that Tim Wu has some power to directly shape government policy, not just public opinion. Should companies worry?
Hints at the answers can be found in a peculiar career that winds from Harvard Law School’s vibrant cyberlaw scene to the trenches of Silicon Valley’s Internet wars.
(Read the rest of this story at www.chronicle.com)