Tim Wu on net neutrality
Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University, author of the (excellent) new book "The Master Switch" and chairman of the board of Free Press. Oh, and he coined the term "net neutrality" in 2003. He spoke to me this morning from Canada, where he's promoting his book, about the net neutrality rules that Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, outlined this week. A lightly edited transcript follows.
Ezra Klein: How do you judge the worth of a net neutrality proposal?
Tim Wu: The point of net neutrality is whether it makes it easier for entrepreneurs to challenge existing companies. That’s the best way to judge it.
EK: What features are you looking for specifically?
TW: As a checklist, here’s what you want: First, does it prevent blocking? Number two, does it let consumers attach whatever devices they want to their Internet connection? Number three, does it ban paid prioritization, i.e., a deal between Comcast and Hulu that excludes or slows Netflix on Comcast’s network? Number four, can it survive a challenge in the federal courts? And five, does it include wireless?
The FCC’s plan has got the blocking, it’s partly there on prioritization, it has the attachment rule, it doesn’t have a secure legal foundation so it’s vulnerable to the courts, and it’s partly there on wireless. So that’s like a two-and-a-half out of five. It’s the classic Obama thing: right there in the middle!
EK: On prioritization, my understanding is that there are a few separate questions there. One is discrimination, which decides whether Comcast can decide to slow traffic to Hulu. Then there’s the question of usage, whether Comcast can charge me more because I use a ton of bandwidth. And intuitively, pricing based on usage makes sense to me.
TW: That’s perfectly fine, in my view. I think of bandwidth and energy as very similar. They’re two of the most important utilities in our life. And if you turn on all your lights and crank the heat, you’ll pay more. And if you’re cranking Netflix all day and downloading 10 gigs, I’ve never thought it unreasonable to have to pay more. That’s a billing question, not a net neutrality question. There’s no constitutional right to unlimited bandwidth. I say the FCC is only partly there on prioritization because there’s nothing on wireless in their prioritization language. So it’s not clear if it applies, or if Google and Verizon could strike a deal with Netflix to make it faster than its competitors on the Android phones.
EK: The early reaction to the FCC’s proposal seemed pretty split. The content companies and the net neutrality advocates were unhappy, and the telecom companies seemed more pleased. Why did it break down like that?
TW: Not all the telecom industry has been happy. Comcast is an exception because they’re engaged in this merger with NBC and so can’t bargain with the government. Verizon doesn’t like it. But the carriers realize that it could’ve been much stronger against them. President Obama is in favor of net neutrality, and he’s got a majority on the board, so it could’ve been five out of five. And this is a rule wherein the carriers don’t have to change their current behavior. So that makes it pretty easy for them.
EK: Why were companies like Google and Netflix and Yahoo unhappy?
TW: They want to push for more. There’s room to push for more. I also think Google was stunned over the summer by complaints that it had changed sides when it struck a deal with Verizon, so they’re trying to reestablish their reputation as defenders of the open Internet.
EK: And what happens next?
TW: There’s a period of lobbying that’s taking place as we speak. Sooner or later someone will leak the actual rule; we’ve heard it described, but we don’t have all the details. And then it’s just a vote on the FCC board. It doesn’t require congressional approval. So something will pass. Once it does, the issue will go away for a while. That’s my prediction. And then the crucial question comes when the carriers decide whether they want to destroy the rule in the federal courts. They have to decide whether to live with this or challenge it. They might decide to just live with it.
Photo credit: TimWu.org.
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