Tim Wu is Missing the Mark…

Tim Wu is missing the mark on “net neutrality.”

In a recent article published by the New York Times entitled, “Tim Wu: Why the Courts Will Have to Save Net Neutrality,” author, Tim Wu utterly fails at consistently defending informational freedom.[1] In criticizing the Trump administration’s recent decision to upend “Net Neutrality,” which is part of Obama’s high-handed legacy, Wu takes the side of Statists everywhere in decrying the move, under the guise of defending freedom. He even uses an illustration comparing the State of China to AT&T in the potential censorship of its critics (as you’ll see later on) — a comical irony to be sure, considering AT&T’s governmentally sustained monopolistic origins and heritage that Wu even chronicles in his historiographical works on informational freedom.[2]

“The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” is a gem, to be sure, despite the troubling quote below.[3] Wu cites the control and manipulation of information through each technological paradigm in American history, from Alexander Bell and “Ma Bell” to Theodore Vail and the Bell cartel or “monopoly” — that was (and still somewhat is) — AT&T, all the way up to Google’s breakthrough SEO (search engine optimization) techniques to discriminately funnel traffic for politically expediency.

Throughout the “The Master Switch,” it is clear to me, the reader, that Tim Wu disdains the public control of information, as well as the private control thereof, unfortunately. Yes, it is true that he thinks government (namely courts), should force informational mediums to abide by what he defines as freedom which, oddly enough, is the opposite of freedom. Truth be told, I shouldn’t be too disappointed in Wu’s inability to understand his own contradictions, simply because he misidentifies them as mere paradoxes. On page 310 of “The Master Switch” Wu writes,

There is a persistent misconception in the annals of American information industries that the radical transformation of the sector beginning with the rise of the computing Internet in the 1970s and continuing to pulse ever since was essentially owing to a return of laissez-faire, a purer free-market capitalism that had fallen out of favor after the Great Depression and was slow to regain its natural place. If the stories in this book tell us anything, however, it is that the free market can also lead to situations of reduced freedom. Markets are born free, yet no sooner are they born than some would-be emperor is forging chains [with the government]. Paradoxically, it sometimes happens that the only way to preserve freedom is through judicious controls [with the government] on the exercise of private power. If we believe in liberty, it must be freedom from both private and public coercion [read: by government coercion].[4]

Did you catch that? Wu states that “the free market can also lead to situations of reduced freedom,” and that “liberty… must be freedom from both private and public coercion.” The problem is, coercion is already illegal for private entities, unlike the State which gets to decide arbitrarily when and how it coerces the people over whom it governs — and in this case, the government gets to decide what private services exist, and which ones you, the consumer, are allowed to use.

Wu then goes on to make the exact same argument in his article against the potential toppling of “Net Neutrality” in vying for a judicious option — for the courts to thwart the FCC’s actions against “Net Neutrality.” In a New York Times article Wu states,

F.C.C. chairman, Ajit Pai, announced plans to eliminate even the most basic net neutrality protections — including the ban on blocking — replacing them with a “transparency” regime enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. “Transparency,” of course, is a euphemism for “doing nothing.” Companies like Madison River, it seems, will soon be able to block internet calls so long as they disclose the blocking (presumably in fine print). Indeed, a broadband carrier like AT&T, if it wanted, might even practice internet censorship akin to that of the Chinese state, blocking its critics and promoting its own agenda.[5]

What seems to be utterly lost on Tim Wu, even in his aforementioned book, is the obvious solution to the threat of Internet Service Provider (ISP) cartels — which were actually created and supported by the same government entities (the FCC, the executive branch, and the judiciary) to which he is making this desperate appeal, alongside local municipalities who lead with myopic policies for political expedient purposes like incumbency. These local politicians don’t seem to care very much at all about freedom; the alleged “founding spirit” of America. If not for municipal politicians, information would be easier to access.

It’s as though Tim Wu is begging our slave masters to give us our fill with poor quality sustenance while limiting potentially greater varieties of flavor and quality. Instead of Coca-Cola, Weihenstephan beer, Wagyu beef, or Bresse chicken, we can imbibe as much dirty water as we want with as much stale bread that we can ingest — as long as it’s dirty water and bread authorized by the State.

For Wu, it looks to be more about the quantity of “freedom” more so than the quality of it; assuming “freedom” is defined as access to the products and services of another person or person(s) — at which time the inevitable degradation of quality always follows suit. This lite-fascism [read: government control of an industry], as it were, is ever so subtle in his scathing criticism of the AOL Time Warner merger in “The Master Switch,” and the net neutrality that was said to have been the cause of its demise.[6] The problem however is that the so-called “walled garden” of AOL is what caused it to crash, not the FCC.[7] AOL stood in direct opposition to consumer demands. It had absolutely nothing to do with FCC regulations or “judicious solutions.” Instead, it had everything to do with a market that was starting to open up — a market that was in desperate need of a divorce from the slothful oligopoly that it became by way of crony government facilitation.

The information market, as important as it is (to which a tome on this subject alone could be written), will always be a threat to governing authorities, and in turn will always be under the threat of control by the very same governing authorities. Therefore, the solution is neither to save nor to abolish “Net Neutrality.” Rather, the solution is much greater. It is the dissolution of the FCC or any government entity that looks to control informational mediums, to include the inhibition of infrastructural innovations to accommodate competing informational mediums (ISPs and the like). It is the prevention of government-created informational cartels like Comcast, Spectrum, et al. To control the flow of information, one must control individuals and their property through coercion — the coercive agents in this case, being governing authorities with whom such cartels collude to ensure their own control and profit; hence patents and intellectual property laws that stymie ingenuity.

It is unfortunate that Wu, in his book, doesn’t follow the implications of government induced informational restraints as they unfold in history. Such restraints, like patents, build a framework that enables centralization, monopolization, and ultimately the manipulation of information to sinister ends. This too is lost on Wu, despite his own report on a certain patent, or rather a covenant with the federal government, which threatened innovations like the “Hush-A-Phone” — a telephone silencer, for use on AT&T phones back in the 1940’s, created by Henry Tuttle.[8] Though patents, and intellectual property law as a whole, are another topic of discussion, it would be helpful if Wu, and the many others who disparage the abolishment of “Net Neutrality,” would focus on the actual nexus of informational control; where governing authorities and crony capitalists [read: not actual capitalist] meet, and how such a relationship can be permanently interrupted.

In closing, let me end in agreement with Tim Wu who writes,

There is no escaping the reality that we have evolved into a society in which electronic information represents the substrate of much of daily life. It is a natural outcome of our having advanced past the mechanical age. And just as our addiction to the benefits of the internal combustion engine led us to such demand for fossil fuels as we could no longer support, so, too, has our dependence on our mobile smart phones, touchpads, laptops, and other devices delivered us to a moment when our demand for bandwidth—the new black gold—is insatiable. Let us, then, not fail to protect ourselves from the will of those who might seek domination of those resources we cannot do without. If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices that our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a manner history has foretold.[9]

Abolish net neutrality.

Abolish the FCC.

Abolish the FTC.

Abolish the State.

Abolish informational tyranny.

[1] Tim Wu, “Tim Wu: Why the Courts Will Have to Save Net Neutrality,” New York Times, November 22, 2017, accessed November 27, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/22/opinion/courts-net-neutrality-fcc.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tim Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

[4] Ibid, 310. Annotations, mine.

[5] Wu 2017.

[6] Wu 2011,  268.

[7] Ibid, 262.

[8] Wu 2011, 101 – 103.

[9] Ibid, 318.

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