"A Historic Decision": Tim Wu, Father of Net Neutrality, Praises FCC Vote to Preserve Open Internet

February 27, 2015


Tim Wu

open Internet policy advocate and Columbia University law professor who is known for coining the term "net neutrality" back in 2002. He has previously served as a senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission. He is the author of Who Controls the Internet? and The Master Switch.

Advocates of a free and open Internet are celebrating a vote Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission to approve strong net neutrality rules. The move bans "paid prioritization" by Internet service providers who seek to charge extra fees from content producers, as well as blocking and throttling of lawful content. The new rules will also apply to mobile access. The vote is seen as a major victory for grassroots advocacy groups — including Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, Free Press, Color of Change and Center for Media Justice — who have spent years campaigning to preserve an open Internet. We speak to longtime open Internet advocate Tim Wu. He is a policy advocate and Columbia University law professor who is known for coining the term "net neutrality" back in 2002.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Advocates of a free and open Internet are celebrating a vote Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission to approve strong net neutrality rules. The move bans paid prioritization by Internet service providers who seek to charge extra fees from content producers, as well as blocking and throttling of lawful content. The new rules will also apply to mobile access. The vote is seen as a major victory for grassroots advocacy groups, including Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, Free Press, Color of Change and Center for Media Justice, who have spent years campaigning to preserve an open Internet. This is FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler speaking on Thursday.

TOM WHEELER: While some other countries try to control the Internet, the action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free and open access to the Internet. The Internet—the Internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet. It’s simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee on the field.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: After nearly two hours of discussion Thursday, Wheeler joined Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn in a three-to-two vote along party lines.

TOM WHEELER: So let me close where I began, with a shout-out to four million Americans who took their time to share with us their views. Today history is being made by a majority of this commission, as we vote for a fast, fair and open Internet. And with that, I will call for the yeas and nays. All in favor, say "aye."




TOM WHEELER: The ayes have it. The item is passed.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama welcomed the FCC’s vote with a thank you letter posted online to users of Reddit. Their outreach, along with years of grassroots campaigns, helped lead to an outpouring of an unprecedented four million comments to the FCC in favor of net neutrality.

But others, like former FCC Chair Michael Powell, complained the vote is a setback. Powell is now president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which is the most powerful agency representing the cable industry. He said consumers would, quote, "surely ... bear the burden of new taxes and increased costs, and they will likely wait longer for faster and more innovative networks since investment will slow in the face of bureaucratic oversight."

Well, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Tim Wu, policy advocate and Columbia University law professor who’s known for coining the term "net neutrality" back in 2002. He’s previously served as a senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission, also author of Who Controls the Internet? and The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. He writes regularly for The New Yorker, where his latest piece in reaction to Thursday’s vote is headlined "Why Everyone was Wrong About Net Neutrality."

Tim Wu, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. You’re usually in New York, but you went down to Washington to celebrate last night. Talk about the significance of the FCC decision.

TIM WU: I mean, this is simply a historic decision. It was a long time, as you said, in the making. Some of us have been working on this—me, personally—for 13 years. And I think it just sets us on a different path. It says that, you know, there need to be basic rules of the road for the Internet, and we’re not going to trust cable and telephone companies to respect freedom of speech or respect new innovators, because of their poor track record. So I think it’s a major step forward, a huge legacy achievement for both the Obama administration and this chairman, Tom Wheeler. And there’s a sense of jubilation here in Washington.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tim, the decision of Verizon, for example, to blast this with a—in Morse code, as if referring back to a previous communication era, I was struck by the fact that I don’t think Verizon sees the irony of its actions, because the old telegraph became—because of lack of government regulation, became largely a Western Union monopoly and out of the reach of ordinary Americans, and it was only used by the wealthy. So they’re actually using the old Morse code telegraph analogy to buttress an argument that is clearly bankrupt at this point in terms of the failure of the modern communications companies to be able to allow and to maintain public access.

TIM WU: You know, I think they need some new talking points. Having been in this debate for over a decade, they’re still relying on the same kind of Bush-era arguments, where they say, you know, "Hands off the Internet." They just say the same thing over—you know, telemedicine, there’s going to be five, 10 competitors in this market. Everyone has watched the broadband market, which used to have hundreds of competitors in the Clinton era, in the early '90s, go to more and more consolidation. They keep saying competition and random things, and, you know, their talking points have worn out. They don't even connect with anyone, I mean, right or left. They’ve kind of lost touch. And that’s why they were so defeated in this latest round, is I just think they kept saying the same things, but no one was listening, and therefore the commission, to its credit, really did what the people wanted. And I think when you look at polls, most people say—"How do you feel about cable or the phone companies putting up slow lanes, slowing down some traffic and speeding up?" Then, people were like, "We don’t like that." It’s not just a Democrat side. It’s nobody likes that. So, I think they just really haven’t done a good job. If there is a case to be made on their side, they haven’t done it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain exactly what Title II is and how exactly the Internet will be regulated?

TIM WU: Sure. Well, I’ll explain it. So, in 1934—this is the allusion that Verizon is making—the New Deal Congress gave the—created the Federal Communications Commission and gave it a broad authority to regulate everything by wire, all communications by wire. And their idea back then was to control the problem of monopoly power that was manifest, actually, in the earlier version of Verizon, named AT&T. And it is basically, at its centerpiece—net neutrality—a nondiscrimination rule.

Frankly, it just keeps the Internet the same, the way it is now, and just makes it very clear to the phone and cable companies: You can’t block anything. You know, you might not like a website that says Verizon’s too expensive; you can’t block that. You can’t degrade service. And you can’t set up what are called slow lanes. That is to say, you can’t go around and say, "Hey, if you don’t want to be slowed down, you need to pay us more money," you know, like kind of a protection scheme. So those don’t seem very outrageous to most Americans. And frankly, they’re not, which is what has been challenging for the—I think, the telecom lobby, is those seem like very straightforward. They’re, frankly, the way the Internet is.

And just to add one last point, we’ve had some kind of net neutrality rules for a very long time. The reason we’re here is because Verizon sued to strike them down. And so, you know, they’ve gotten themselves—Title II just refers to a stronger way of supporting the law. And now that’s what Verizon and the cable industry has gotten themselves into.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the importance of the FCC extending this not just to broadband cable, but also to mobile devices?

TIM WU: Yeah, this is a major victory, which goes way beyond, frankly, what the first administration—the first Obama administration did. The chairman recognized, and I think a lot of people have been saying for a long time, that a lot of broadband is moving to wireless. And so, to just say, "Oh, you can do whatever you want on wireless, but on broadband," doesn’t make sense. And so, they just extended the principle of net neutrality to wireless, where, de facto, it’s basically been in operation anyways. And so, I think that’s a big step forward, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Wu, you have a very interesting history, how you came to be involved with the Internet and coined the term "net neutrality." I don’t think a lot of people know. Well, you ran for lieutenant governor here in New York. But way before that, you clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. And talk about even before that, how you came to be involved with the Internet. Give us a brief, little CV.

TIM WU: Well, sure. I think we talked about this years ago, you know, back in the early days. I was in Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, right when the big—center of the boom. And I worked for a telecom company who made the stuff that was going to attack or destroy net neutrality. And we were trying to sell it to the Chinese government to sort of censor stuff, and also trying to sell it to American cable companies. And, you know, I was a fairly loyal employee, but after a while, I said, "This stuff stinks. It’s going to make the Internet terrible," because I had been—I mean, even earlier than that, I’d been kind of a computer programmer. I’m, you know, a good old-fashioned computer geek. And so, I just saw this, and this is really a threat.

And so, when I came to academia, the very first thing I did was say, "We need this principle called net neutrality." And, you know, at the time, nobody paid any attention. But somehow it caught on. And, you know, 13 years later, I guess, starting with that just innate sense of—you know, I was, I think, repelled—the idea that the Internet would become like cable television, you know, just is kind of crappy—sorry, if we’re on cable ourselves. But, you know, just like whatever makes money is the only thing that survives, I just thought this is terrible. And so, it was really from a personal place. And, you know, now, 13 years later, I guess it was worth it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And for a time, also you were having a good relationship with Michael Powell, the former FCC chair under George W. Bush. Now you’re on—clearly, on opposite sides with him on this issue.

TIM WU: Well, you know, to give Michael Powell a little bit of credit, he actually, to some degree, got the net neutrality thing started. You know, no person is completely good or completely bad in what they do. And he recognized that there was a threat to the Internet, too, from the phone companies and cable companies. And he was the first, when he was the chairman, to do a net neutrality order, actually under Title II, where there was a company in—a phone company that was blocking voice over Internet. And he said, "You know, you can’t do that," and he fined them. So he was tough. He is one of the people who started this. Now, as the head of the cable trade association, he’s had a different tune. But he actually was an enforcer who started this, so he gets a little bit of credit, even though he might not want to take it.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very interesting that Michael Powell—you know, the son of Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and general—who was head of the FCC, comes to head the cable lobbying association that the current chair, Tom Wheeler, came from. Do you think—

TIM WU: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: How did Tom Wheeler get religion? What was—did he—has he talked to you about this epiphany? I mean, we had the images of the protesters in front of his home, not letting him go to work—

TIM WU: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —saying, "If this is how you’re going to work, we don’t want you to go to work"; the encampment outside the FCC that went on for many days.

TIM WU: You know, I think it’s really important never to typecast people entirely and be like, "This guy is a lobbyist," or "This guy is..." You know, a lot of people were worried, particularly in the progressive movement, that, former lobbyist, he was just going to show up at the FCC and do his former master’s bidding or something. But, you know, he’s near the end of his career. He’s not looking for another job. And, you know, he became a net neutrality advocate over—I think when you get in the job, you start to see sort of the wisdom of this position. It is a universal and ancient principle, preventing nondiscrimination in public infrastructure, whether it’s the roads, sidewalks, whatever. And, you know, you look at this idea of fast lanes, slow lanes. So I think, gradually—you know? And then he saw all the comments. And when you’re actually in the job—Michael Powell is another example—and you see what could happen to the Internet, you think, like, "That is no good." I think anyone who directly experiences this has that feeling.

And so, yes, he—by the way, it is a textbook case of grassroots organizing. Maybe we’ll talk about this later. But there was no one with any money or any power on the side of net neutrality. There were academics, you know, a group like Fight for the Future or Free Press, you know, activist groups. But the message was really strong. And finally, the four million Americans who wrote the agency really made a difference, and really, the president himself getting involved—all these things. So Tom Wheeler really changed his tune on this, and it just shows you, you really shouldn’t typecast anyone.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tim, I wanted to ask you—this is not a new fight, because, clearly, those who are familiar with some of the history of mass communications know that ever since the computer, the personal computer, was created, there’s been a constant debate of the relationship between the personal computer and the communications lines—

TIM WU: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —originally the old phone lines and now broadband. And this has been an ongoing battle over how the American people are going to get their information. So this is really only the latest stage of this, isn’t it?

TIM WU: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. You know, it goes back to the telegraph, where—I don’t want to, you know, go on too much about history, but in the 19th century, the telegraph had such control over the wire news, that they tried—would use their power to try to throw elections for the Republican Party. It has been—the tension between the people who own the wires and the stuff on top of the wires has been with us since the wires existed. And I don’t think it goes away. That’s why I think it’s—you know, at some level, there always needs to be government oversight. There’s too much power in private hands when someone owns the master switch, to use my book’s title. And we have seen this before. We saw it with AT&T. We’ve seen it over the radio waves, with broadcast networks. You know, there isn’t—everyone knows this, but, you know, the revolutionaries take over the radio stations, and now they take over the Internet sites, first because there is an enormous amount of power, and unchecked private power is a dangerous thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, comedian John Oliver dedicated nearly 15 minutes of his HBO program to explain why net neutrality is so important, and ended the show with a call to his viewers to write to the FCC to encourage them to adopt the new rules. The enormous response broke the commission’s website. This is a clip from Last Week Tonight.

JOHN OLIVER: For once in your life, we need you to channel that anger, that badly spelled bile that you normally reserve for unforgivable attacks on actresses you seem to think have put on weight, or politicians that you disagree with, or photos of your ex-girlfriend getting on with her life, or nonwhite actors being cast as fictional characters. And I’m talking to you, Ron Paul Fan 2016, and you, One Direction Forever. And I’m talking to you, One Direction Sucks Balls. We need you to get out there and, for once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction. Seize your moment, my lovely trolls. Turn on caps lock and fly, my pretties! Fly! Fly! Fly!

AMY GOODMAN: That is HBO comedian John Oliver on his program, pushing for net neutrality. Finally, Tim Wu, on this day, your thoughts about if Aaron Swartz, the young Internet activist who, unfortunately, took his life a few years ago—what his feelings would be today, as he dedicated his life to net neutrality?

TIM WU: Yeah, no, I mean, you know, yesterday, we were having a celebration party in D.C., and it was one of these moments. Someone said, "This is a moment for hugs." Like, everybody was just so jubilant. We spent—you know, it’s tough when you work on progressive causes. You’re always outgunned, outspent, and people burn out because it just takes so much energy. And, you know, Aaron Swartz was the kind of guy who dedicated his life to these causes, and, you know, he should have been there. I think a lot of people should have been there. But it was at least one great moment for those who have patiently been sticking it out. And I salute all of the people who have worked tirelessly for low amounts of money now for over a decade to try and fight for an open Internet. That was his fight, that was our fight, and yesterday was a day of triumph, finally.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Wu, we want to thank you for being with us, Columbia University law professor known for coining the term "net neutrality" back in 2002. He is the author of Who Controls the Internet? and The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.

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