‘I’VE BEEN THERE AND I’VE WATCHED IT FIRST-HAND IN NET NEUTRALITY. WE HAVE A PROBLEM WITH AN INVISIBLE GOVERNMENT.’
Net neutrality champion Tim Wu — the Columbia Law School professor who coined the phrase in a 2003 paper. About: Tim Wu is an author, policy advocate, and professor at Columbia Law School. He is also a fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing editor at The New Republic. Wu’s best known work is the development of Net Neutrality theory, but he also writes about private power, free speech, copyright, and antitrust. He is author of The Master Switch, Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination, and other works. In 2013, he was named one of America’s 100 Most Influential Lawyers. He has previously served as a senior advisor to the Federal Trade Commission, Chair of Media reform group Free Press, as a fellow at Google, and worked for Riverstone Networks in the telecommunications industry. He was a law clerk for Judge Richard Posner and Justice Stephen Breyer. He graduated from McGill University (B.Sc.), and Harvard Law School. Wu also writes regularly for the New Yorker, The New Republic and T magazine, has been recognized by Scientific American magazine, National Law Journal, 02138 Magazine, and the World Economic Forum, and has twice won the Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. History: Fifteen years ago, he landed a marketing job with a network equipment maker called Riverstone Networks. Riverstone made network routers, among other things, and it sold many of these to Chinese internet service providers who then used them to block traffic on their networks. After about a year, he left Riverstone, disillusioned but wiser. And today, Wu says that the time he spent there helped cement the idea that has made him famous: net neutrality. First proposed in a June 2002 memo, net neutrality decreed that internet service providers must treat all traffic equally, and let users do what they wished with their bandwidth. This led to FCC rules that not only prevented ISPs from blocking content, but barred them from discriminating against traffic in other ways. Current: This past January, a federal appeals court struck down the FCC rules, saying the Commission hadn't established the authority to regulate broadband internet providers in this way. Over the years, the internet has evolved to the point where the notion of a completely neutral network doesn't really apply. But Wu says that the net neutrality movement remains essential. “I’ve become more convinced of the importance of the principle,” The debate over net neutrality is extremely complicated and highly charged, but for Wu, it all boils down to one thing: ensuring that individuals and businesses–especially small players–get fair treatment on the net.Thanks to widely available home broadband connections from ISPs such as Comcast and Verizon–and indeed, thanks to net neutrality rules—operations like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Netflix have flourished. But with the rise of their online empires–which now involve such enormous amounts of bandwidth-sapping video—the Googles and the Netflixes have been forced to rewire the internet, building their own fast lanes to our phones and laptops. These fast lanes are a necessity on the modern internet, but they also mean that the old notion of net neutrality—which insists that all traffic be treated equally—doesn’t really make sense.
Today there’s a growing concern that that ISPs will charge unfair amounts for fast access to their networks, and that they are short-changing customers by intentionally degrading the quality of online video, which directly competes with other businesses run by big-name ISPs. Comcast, remember, also offers phone services, and its main business is cable television. It even owns NBC, one of the largest cable TV channels. “Maybe we should look at practices that are problematic, like degradation threats,” Wu says.