Tim Wu of Columbia Law School has been best known to the technology world at large — as opposed to the circle of cyber-law academia that he inhabits — as a staunch proponent of net neutrality. He occasionally weighs in on copyright-related issues on the Internet, but net neutrality is his calling card.
Now, with The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Borzoi Books), he is the latest in the long line of legal scholars to write a book about how the Internet is affecting creativity, innovation, freedom, and other public policy issues. And this book is one of the better ones in the genre.
Somewhat surprisingly, net neutrality only makes an oblique guest appearance at the end of this book. The central idea of The Master Switch is what Wu calls “The Cycle.” In the Cycle, a new communications technology is introduced by inventors, hobbyists, hackers, startups, etc., then slowly gets coopted by major corporate interests, who monopolize the new technology, rob it of its openness and freedom, and rule… until the next iteration of the Cycle comes along.
Wu starts his story with the founding of AT&T in the early 20th century. AT&T is a central character throughout the narrative, leading up to the present era, where it is the exclusive partner of another monopolistic, restrictive, closed-system, centralized-control proponent: a company called Apple.
But The Master Switch is definitely not just another predictable openness-and-freedom-good, corporate-greed-bad screed from an academic idealist. The book is a breath of fresh air, in three ways.
First, although Wu does come down firmly on the side of openness and freedom, his analysis is even-handed and does allow that there are benefits to closed systems run by monopolists. The early incarnation of AT&T as a telecommunications monopoly not only ran a system that was guaranteed to work all the time but also devoted much of its efforts to public service. And Apple sure does make great devices.
Second, he’s practically the only member of his tribe to allow that a Silicon Valley company can ever do any wrong. Not only does he accuse Apple of building closed systems and betraying its original ideals, but he calls Google “one of the great corporate hegemons of our time.” His views of both companies are not altogether flattering, which is especially interesting considering his assertion that they are the two opposing superpowers in the next great conflict over communications technology.
Third, Wu actually cares about commercially produced content, whereas most other writers on this subject matter either treat content as undifferentiated piles of bits or prefer the content created by the newly liberated masses. He’s evidently a film buff. He looks deeply into the history of Hollywood and examines how its periods of greater or lesser creativity correlated with periods of centralized and decentralized control. (He says little about other content industries such as music and publishing.) He laments the fact that today’s massive glut of content on the internet is devaluing content in general.
After taking the reader through several iterations of The Cycle over the past century, Wu delves into questions such as: is the Internet really “different this time”? What are the best ways to ensure that monopolistic behavior is kept in check? And, what is the proper role of government versus private industry?
Most of his proposals and conclusions are relegated to the final chapter, where he switches from engaging storyteller to academic writer of portentous sentences like “[The] indifference to the danger of private power … owes in part to the Lockean sanctification of private property as enunciated by Jefferson.” And this is where his book goes downhill.
Wu proposes something called the Separations Principle, whereby various mechanisms are put in place to keep content, communications, and electronics industries apart from one another.
The Separations Principle is not a simple recipe, such as “The FCC should impose net neutrality regulations” or “The Justice Department should go after info-tech monopolists much more aggressively” (for that one, see trust-busting litigator Gary Reback’s recent book Free the Market!). Instead, Wu believes that a solution should come from a combination of relatively light-handed government involvement and behavioral norms that should keep corporate excesses in check.
In other words, Wu looks at only two of the four factors controlling Cyberspace that his Harvard Law School mentor Larry Lessig laid out so elegantly in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace: law, economics (the market), technology, and behavioral norms. He looks at law and behavioral norms, but his treatments of economic and technological issues are superficial.
As far as economics are concerned, Wu should have (or shows no evidence of having) read a book that is still, after over a decade, the Bible of information technology economics: Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian’s Information Rules. If he had read that, he would know that companies like AT&T, Apple, and the major movie studios behave in exactly the ways that are proven to do what publicly traded companies are supposed to do: maximize shareholder value. He would also recognize that Google’s “open” approach is anomalous, and that if Google is to dominate over the long term, it will either have to jettison its openness (just as Apple did) or literally rewrite the Information Rules.
And as far as behavioral norms go: it’s possible that Companies nowadays don’t exhibit the same level of public spirit that the AT&T of a hundred years ago did under Theodore Vail because they are savvier about business nowadays, not because public service is an accepted behavioral norm of large companies. Wu doesn’t allow for this possibility.
Wu’s grasp of technology is weak. I was hoping to read a cogent explanation of what net neutrality is and how exactly it would work, given that Wu is one of the top net neutrality ideologues; I was sorely disappointed. And I suspect that like “net neutrality,” Wu’s “Separations Principle” is easy to state at a superficial level but extremely difficult to define precisely or put into practice.
As evidence of Wu’s technological shallowness, he gets a few salient tech-related facts wrong, such as his assertions that Apple was “the first to get the music industry to consent to online downloads” and that law professor Jonathan Zittrain first made the “startling prediction” in 2006 that “information appliances” would eventually overtake PCs. (Correct answers: several companies offered major-label-licensed services 1-2 years before Apple did; Larry Ellison of Oracle made this prediction five years before Zittrain.)
The Separations Principle is an intriguing idea, but it’s hard to argue for or against it based on the thin explanation of it that Wu offers in this book. In addition to not tackling economic or technical aspects, he doesn’t offer much evidence that disallowing combinations of, say, network providers with content owners is The Answer that will give people freedom, choice, creativity, etc.
For example, music companies have complained for years that Apple and other technology companies have damaged their business by throttling the economics of distribution. Yet Apple doesn’t own any music copyrights, let alone record companies. Conversely, no one seems to be complaining that Sony’s ownership of both a major movie studio and a major music company is hurting consumers.
Wu fears a combination of, for example, Comcast and NBC Universal or AT&T and Disney/Apple. The former may happen. Yet the latter seems to be little more than a partnership that has done wonders for AT&T but isn’t helping Apple very much anymore (just ask iPhone owners in New York and San Francisco) and in fact may be helping Google and its Android partners (just ask Verizon Wireless subscribers in those cities). Moreover, one could argue that Apple’s bond with Disney (via Steve Jobs) may weaken rather than strengthen Hollywood’s hand by forcing the major studios into two separate technological camps: Disney/Apple and everybody else.
Wu does relate the Separations Principle to historical evidence of its necessity. But by failing to explain how it would actually work, Wu misses an opportunity and diminishes an otherwise excellent book. This is neither to discount the importance of the issues that Wu raises in The Master Switch nor to suggest that solutions are easy. Solutions to the problems that Wu identifies will need to come from people with broader expertise and will take time to figure out. In the meantime, The Master Switch offers important historical perspective on the current tugs of war, and is inherently valuable on that basis alone.