The case against media empires

For many authors, it would be the stuff of a particularly pleasant daydream. Let’s say you published a well-received book that dealt with issues that concerned you deeply, and then somebody in a position of power tapped you on the shoulder and said, “Don’t you want to do more than just write about it?”

That scenario would be much more than just a daydream for Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, BSc’95. It’s pretty much what happened.

Author and legal scholar Tim Wu (Photo: Columbia University)

Last fall, Wu published The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, a book that accomplishes two tasks simultaneously. First, it provides an instructive and entertaining look at how game-changing information technologies—the telephone, radio, films, television, cable TV, the Internet—have all been introduced to the world in recent decades (the behind-the-scenes machinations are often much nastier and more colourful than you might have imagined).

Secondly, it marshals all that history to make the case for something that Wu believes in passionately: that it’s a very bad idea to allow a handful of companies to have too much sway over both the distribution of information and its content.

For instance, Wu doesn’t think your Internet provider should ever be in a position where it could place limits on the sites you’re allowed to visit, either directly or in sneakier ways (by offering easier access to the sites it favours, for example). His position is encapsulated in a phrase he is widely credited for popularizing in both legal and techie circles— “net neutrality.”

Now, back to that daydream scenario. The book, once published, caused a stir. Nature called it “groundbreaking,” the New York Times hailed it as “thought-provoking” and Forbes labelled it as “brilliant.” And then, earlier this year, Wu got that tap on the shoulder.

The Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. federal agency committed to fair competition practices and consumer protection, appointed Wu as a senior advisor who will pay particular attention to issues related to the Internet and mobile markets.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the question of centralized versus decentralized systems,” says Wu. And while the net neutrality advocate is clear about where his sympathies ultimately lie, he is quick to admit that, “there are some clear advantages to centralized systems. They’re capable of doing heroic things that just don’t happen in a completely decentralized system.”

His book offers some compelling examples. AT&T succeeded in providing telephone service across the entire U.S., a mammoth undertaking that only a company with its size and heft could have accomplished. It also created Bell Labs, the remarkable research division that produced seven Nobel Prize winners. The early Hollywood studios which seized near-total control over the movie industry, used this power to vastly improve the quality of films.

But Wu argues that the dangers associated with this level of dominance over communication industries ultimately outweigh the benefits. AT&T invented the answering machine in the thirties, but hid the technology for 60 years, worried that the ability to tape phone conversations might make its customers antsy. The company suppressed other innovations for years, including fiber optics, mobile telephones, and fax machines. “When the interests of AT&T were at odds with the advancement of knowledge, there was no question as to which good prevailed,” Wu writes.

As for the Hollywood studios, they proved to be vulnerable to pressure from the moralistic Legion of Decency, which resulted in a degree of self-censorship that, in some respects, “might have satisfied the Taliban,” Wu writes. As a consequence, filmmakers were largely barred from using their movies to make any trenchant social critiques except in the subtlest of ways.

In both cases, according to Wu, it took government action to smash apart the monopolies and to pave the way for improved conditions. Had AT&T held onto its power (which it has largely recouped since), he doubts that the Internet could have developed in such an open manner.

In Internet policy circles, Wu’s voice tends to carry a lot of weight, in part because the Harvard-trained lawyer is so at ease in the realm of science and technology. Wu chalks up his comfort level to genetics—both his parents are scientists. But he also credits the time he spent at McGill studying science. “If I could understand biochemistry, I was pretty confident that law school would be relatively simple.”

Daniel McCabe, BA’89