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Posted at 12:41 PM ET, 12/ 3/2010

Tim Wu on net neutrality

By Ezra Klein

friendly_wu.jpgTim 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.

By Ezra Klein  | December 3, 2010; 12:41 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews, Tech  
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Comments

What's the verdict then?

Does this guy like or dislike the proposal?

And Ezra, do you like it or dislike it.

This post is rather useless as is.

Posted by: lauren2010 | December 3, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

"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."

If it favors one side over another, how exactly is that neutral? It seems that judging net neutrality by whether it makes something easier for one group over another isn't neutral at all.

Posted by: MichaelTurk | December 3, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

--*The point of net neutrality is whether it makes it easier for entrepreneurs to challenge existing companies.*--

Confiscating the profits of "existing companies" would satisfy that nonsense criteria. I gather Wu is an expert in his field.

Columbia U. is, what, one or two notches below Harvard (whose graduates are currently busy driving the country into the ground)?

Posted by: msoja | December 3, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Julius Genachowski sells out - http://bu.tt/NetNeutrality

Posted by: 1millionbumperstickers | December 3, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

"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."

What this means is that "net neutrality" means neutrality among businesses, not consumers. If your browsing experience is degraded because other, more affluent users are paying to hog the pipeline, net neutrality isn't going to help you. That's your own fault for being poor.

Posted by: tomtildrum | December 3, 2010 5:19 PM | Report abuse

As my war on telecoms rages on, I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that I will have to move to Korea for decent internet. It continually enrages me how far behind we, as a country, are in this area.

I liked all those charts you posted, Ezra, comparing US investment v. outcomes in healthcare with those of other countries. How about one for investment v. outcomes in internet connectivity?

Oh yeah...and then there's net neutrality.

I sometimes wonder if Free Press (to which I've donated) would do well to communicate more from an overall consumer-centric internet quality perspective than from a principled "free speech" perspective. It's not clear to me that we, in the US, have imagination/awareness enough to fully appreciate how relatively bad--on so many levels--our internet sucks. There's definitely room to broaden that kind of conversation, which currently seems to be relegated to geekier quarters.

Posted by: slag | December 3, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

Do understand, ye of little foresight: Before pasty faced Genachowski executes his power grab, you are free to start your own ISP business as you see fit. Afterwards, not only will you have to have all the usual business smarts going for you, but you'll have to comply with the government regulations, too. And the entrenched businesses are damn sure that those regulations don't favor *you*.

Also, I'd wager that most of the people with an opinion on "net neutrality" are a lot like the people Klein graphed today with opinions respecting foreign aid. And in their ignorance, somehow, they are always willing to cede the matter to the government. And, might I add, all to their own detriment.

Of course, with the beauty of Collectivism, ignorant choices don't just redound to individuals, they drag everyone down with them.

Pasty faced Genachowski should be tossed out on his ear, and the FCC closed down behind him.

Posted by: msoja | December 3, 2010 11:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra Klein, not so closeted uh, fa, uh, fascist.

Posted by: shred11 | December 4, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

So,Internet pricing should be based on how much bandwidth you use rather than who you are, and ISPs shouldn't block or degrade the internet traffic of their competitors to gain market advantage.

It's pretty obvious that's what Mr. Wu meant by his statement about entrepreneurs and established companies. He's not saying that the government should favor one group over another, but that it should prevent monopolies and anticompetitive behavior.

I don't know how it's possible to have a rational discussion about it when one side is willing to pretend that net neutrality means exactly the opposite of what he actually just said it means. This isn't even a discussion that should have "sides", except established business vs. new upstarts. Monopolies are not desired by liberals or conservatives on the other side of this stupid looking glass.

Posted by: julie18 | December 5, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

So,Internet pricing should be based on how much bandwidth you use rather than who you are, and ISPs shouldn't block or degrade the internet traffic of their competitors to gain market advantage.

It's pretty obvious that's what Mr. Wu meant by his statement about entrepreneurs and established companies. He's not saying that the government should favor one group over another, but that it should prevent monopolies and anticompetitive behavior.

I don't know how it's possible to have a rational discussion about it when one side is willing to pretend that net neutrality means exactly the opposite of what he actually just said it means. This isn't even a discussion that should have "sides", except established business vs. new upstarts. Monopolies are not desired by liberals or conservatives on the other side of this stupid looking glass.

Posted by: julie18 | December 5, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Sorry for the double post guys--I got an error message the first time I hit "post".

Posted by: julie18 | December 5, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

==*So,Internet pricing should be based on how much bandwidth you use rather than who you are*==

Don't worry. With political intrusion it will matter who you are, or at least, who you are connected to politically, rather than who you are in matters of competence, efficiency, delivering a product that the masses want.

--*ISPs shouldn't block or degrade the internet traffic of their competitors to gain market advantage.*--

Yes, competition should be stifled, at all costs.

--*It's pretty obvious that's [...]*--

I love the way propagandists try to tell other people what's "pretty obvious". If it *were* *pretty obvious*, you wouldn't have to point it out.

Posted by: msoja | December 5, 2010 10:47 PM | Report abuse

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