When it comes to information in the 20th century, Tim Wu sees a pattern: first, a major technology comes into the light; then, a major corporation steps in to take control of that new technology. From AT&T and major television networks to our current behemoths, Apple and Google, Wu finds there are points along the information landscape where a change occurs, where a medium shifts from open to closed.
In his latest book, "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires," (Borzoi Books, $27.95), Wu, a Columbia Law professor, advocates for constitutional controls within the tech and information industries. That means keeping tech developers separate from those who control public access to their technology as well as those who own the infrastructure on which that technology travels to people.
In a brief email interview, Wu answered questions about cycles and monopolies, Verizon and Facebook.
Tim, your latest book is called "The Master Switch." How did you choose this title?
It comes from a quote from Fred Friendly, who was president of CBS News in the 1960s, and in the 1950s, helped bring down Senator [Joseph] McCarthy and his hearing. Friendly's idea was that there is a level of control of speech that operates beneath the rest -- a metaphorical "master switch."
What inspired you to write this book?
I love history, and I have always been interested in computer, communications and media, and so eventually I decided to write all about them. You have to be pretty obsessed with something to write a book about it. Otherwise I'd never have finished.
You talk about cycles in your book, in which industries move gradually from open periods to monopolies, driven mostly by the consumer demand for convenience and quality. Where in the cycle is the Internet industry now -- and what does this mean for consumers?
The Internet is in a pretty good part of the cycle -- the part where it is open and relatively easy to get a company started. It's a good time to be a consumer, in fact. The question is just whether things will change and get worse over the next five years or so.
Do you think consumers should be wary of the current Internet monopolies such as Google and Facebook?
I think these companies, at present, generally mean well, but that they need to be watched quite carefully. History suggests that power corrupts.
You mention some similarities/parallels between the information empires of the 20th century (AT&T, NBC, etc.) and the Internet empires of today (Apple, Google, Facebook). How do these modern-day behemoths compare to the information giants of the 1900s? Is Steve Jobs the new [monopoly-obsessed telephone magnate] Theodore Vail?
There are definitely similarities between a man like Steve Jobs and Theodore Vail or, perhaps more to the point, the Hollywood moguls of the 1920s. They are men with grand visions with an urge to control their medium.
Has Google changed? Its founders famously pledged not to "be evil" in their 2004 Founders' IPO letter. Have recent events such as the company's acceptance of the Chinese government's censorship practices and its joint policy proposal with Verizon tarnished its reputation?
Google has definitely made missteps. Size has a pernicious influence on almost every institution. I think the founders still generally mean well, but the question is what the firm will do to keep the power it has.
Do you think that Google really is committed to an open Internet?
It's a hard question. I think many people at Google, including the founders, are deeply committed to an open Internet. But whether the firm feels it needs to change...
Have you seen "The Social Network"? Does Mark Zuckerberg belong in a category with those other famous men?
Yes. I don't know him personally, and it's hard to know if the movie is accurate: It is, after all a movie. But I suspect Mark Zuckerberg shares many of the traits of the traditional media mogul -- most of all, a taste for power and influence being more important than money.
You coined the term "net neutrality" and have been a well-known champion of it. How does this tie into your book's message?
Net neutrality is, in a sense, the antidote to the problem of the master switch. If there remain open, public channels, it is hard for any one man or company to get power over who gets heard. Net neutrality is an open Internet principle, but it relates to a much older danger.