Mark Writes a Book Report

One of the books I finished over break was Tim Wu’s “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires“. I would describe this as an historical analysis with a message. By the way, Wu coined the phrase (net neutrality) – the origin was new to me, but I have been interested in the issue for some time.

Wu argues information technologies seem to follow a cycle – they begin with the promise of encouraging wide participation and transformation but morph toward monopoly and limited options. He contends this was true of publishing, radio, and television and perhaps now the Internet. I found the analysis and stories fascinating.

It does seem like the progression Wu describes is underway. Google sells books. People complain that the Apple apps will kill the Internet. Everyone complains about the providers. The recent FCC ruling regarding net neutrality must have occurred shortly after the book went to press.

Wu seems to think public opinion matters to companies (at least while some options are still available). To me, the problem is most advanced when it comes to those companies providing access. The latest FCC ruling while protecting net neutrality in one sphere (hard wire connections) allowed greater opportunities for cell providers.

I have been attempting to understand what Wu thought was the government’s responsibility and have checked my own vagueness against what other pundits seem to claim he said (Inside Higher Ed, Laura Miller). Different pundits seem to come different conclusions Wu’s recommendation regarding the role of government. My understanding was that he argued that the role should simply be to promote competition and this could be achieved through his “separation principle”. So, for example, there is danger when the cable company both provides access and has digital content to sell. There would be greater danger if a company generated content, sold the content, and provided access to the Internet. So, if a company provides access with little competition (e.g., the only cable provider in a community), this is a dangerous situation because it is in the interest of the company to both make money on access and also on the content it wants to sell.

Wu seems to think public opinion matters to companies (at least while some options are still available), the convenience may limit complaints until it is too late.  To me, the problem is most advanced when it comes to those companies providing access.

NY Times Interview

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