Way back in the 2005, when the Internet in the midst of being transformed from a shiny object to an everyday essential, a small telephone company in North Carolina did an interesting thing. The phone company, which was also the local internet service provider, blocked its customers from using Vonage. Since Vonage, a new internet-based phone service, allowed customers to make phone calls more cheaply than they could make them using the telephone company’s service, it was a direct competitor. The phone company restricted access so its customers would have to use its service.
The Federal Communications Commission ruled that the move was anticompetitive and fined the phone company.
Why did the FCC see it that way? No doubt it was due to the influence of Tim Wu, then an associate professor of law at the University of Virginia Law School. Wu had outlined his ideas in his paper A Proposal for Network Neutrality in 2002, and his thinking has shaped the approach to regulations around the internet since.
Until last December.
In December 2017, the FCC voted to roll back net neutrality rules and return to “light touch” regulation that was in place in the 90s. ISPs will now be allowed to operate under less regulation in favor of greater transparency, according to FCC Char Ajit Pai. Pai insists that the roll back will spur greater infrastructure investment and innovation.
Critics – including Wu – say that rolling back net neutrality will continue the consolidation of power into the hands of a few, the big internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T. It will allow them to favor their own content at the expense of other content, or force content providers to pay a high price to get their content and services in front of customers.
Wu continues to argue for net neutrality, and believes that the approach created an environment which made the rise of sites like Netflix and Hulu and Snapchat possible. He believes the rollback of net neutrality will be successfully challenged in court.
As a media entrepreneur, I’m paying attention to this conversation with great interest. In my case, the rollback of net neutrality could have real impacts. Will my content end up accessible only to those who pay for streaming web access? Will my contact be throttled or blocked by certain providers? Will I be pushed out in favor of larger players who can afford to pay more to play? Or will the rollback of regulation expand internet access, increase competition and make it cheaper for consumers to afford, thus giving my content wider and deeper reach?
As I ponder these questions, I can’t help but appreciate Tim Wu’s vision and ideas. A few things I note about Wu:
He recognizes patterns and sees the big picture. Wu sees this conversation over net neutrality as part of a larger information cycle. Wu theorizes that information innovators begin by advocating for openness, then as they become more successful and powerful, they begin to advocate for more and more control and consolidation of their power. Their evolution (devolution?) leads to a stifling of new innovation and competition, says Wu. His thinking fascinates me, and I’d love to talk with him more.
Big thinkers matter. We often celebrate entrepreneurs, but academics should be celebrated, too. Wu’s thoughts and influence helped define the regulatory stage that protected and allowed entrepreneurs to flourish.
What are your thoughts on net neutrality, and the new regulatory stance adopted by the FCC in December. Do you think it will withstand a court challenge? Do you want it to?