The reign of telecoms shills meddling in internet regulations seems to be coming to a close, at least for now. The New York Times reports that Joe Biden has chosen Tim Wu, who’s credited with defining foundational concepts like net neutrality, to serve on the National Economic Council in a new role as a special assistant for technology and competition policy. While the extent of Wu’s power in an advisory role is still somewhat undefined, it’s represents a considerable step away from the corporate favor-trading that defined the Trump era.
As Protocol has pointed out, policymakers perpetually recite Wu’s writings on antitrust and rights to equitable access. His 2003 paper believed to have coined the term “network neutrality” catalyzed extremely popular and hard-fought net neutrality rules, which prevent internet service providers from deliberately slowing speeds, disadvantaging sites and services that can’t afford to pay as much as larger ones for bandwidth. Trump’s FCC Chairman/telecoms’ government rep Ajit Pai repealed net neutrality in 2017, despite sparking what was likely the largest-ever online protest.
Here’s Wu explaining why net neutrality matters in the New Yorker, 2014:
Acting together, the Internet service providers could destroy Netflix by slowing its data to a crawl, making movies impossible to watch.
Such obvious outrages are unlikely; the firms will surely promise to behave themselves. But they might, instead, slowly begin bleeding money out of the Internet economy with quiet threats and expensive carrots, extracting fees and tolls wherever they can. “You better pay for ‘turbo’ access, Mr. Blogger, otherwise who knows how long it will take readers to reach your content.” Or, to a new video-streaming service, it might say, “We’re going to put Hulu ahead of you, unless you pay up”—meaning that its customers would have an easier time watching Hulu videos than content from the new guy. A.T. & T., Verizon, and Comcast already collect more than three hundred billion dollars in revenues every year. But, like any good corporate citizen, they’d like more.
Wu translated words into action as a senior enforcement lawyer under New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in 2015, with an investigation into Verizon, Time Warner Cable, and Cablevision for allegedly making consumers pay for slower than promised speeds. It ended with a $174.2 million settlement from Charter Communications (which bought Time Warner.)
Under Obama, Wu served as an FTC advisor and, briefly, on the National Economic Council in order to help design antitrust policy. But he had some regrets. In a talk with WIRED on antitrust, he said that he didn’t go hard enough on Mark Zuckerberg:
I don’t think anyone in the Obama administration was taking money, but we had this kind of rosy view. And when Mark Zuckerberg came to the Federal Trade Commission saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry about these privacy violations, but like, I’m a young man; I didn’t know what I was doing. We’ll never do it again,” everybody believed it and dropped individual charges against him. But in fact, we were fooled.
Since then he’s seemed less receptive to excuses. Last year, he applauded the FTC and 40 states for filing an antitrust suit against Facebook, accusing the company of illegally buying out competition. Specifically, Wu said Zuckerberg has taken the strategy of kill-or-conquer “to a smirking and egregious extreme.” He made a similar case for breaking up Google, accusing it of using monopoly powers to “shamelessly” harvest its users’ personal activity.
He also recognizes that politicians involved in the bipartisan crusade to kill Section 230 (Biden included) don’t understand how Section 230 works and why killing it would likely only further harm small players. “Repealing 230 would inflict pain, through private litigation, not just on big tech, but the entire tech sector,” he wrote last year on Medium.
Wu has also supported a TikTok ban, not as a trade war chip but as a stance for an uncensored surveillance-free internet.
And some cherry-picked fun proposals Wu has pitched over the years: Facebook paying us for our data, eliminating extraneous tasks so everyone can work less, and perhaps even a universal basic income. For a better sense of his ideas, generally, peruse some of his books, like The Curse of Bigness and The Attention Merchants (though consider buying them somewhere other than Amazon, another tech giant of which Wu has been highly critical.)
While there’s more than enough imbalance and abuse in the tech sector alone, the Times reports that Wu’s also expected to weigh in on other industries like big pharma and agriculture.