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Tim Wu's Battle for the Internet

Can you imagine the Internet being controlled by a few massive media companies that govern what users can and cannot access online? Tim Wu can - in fact, he says it's already happening. Learn how this advocate for a democratic Internet is working with the Federal Trade Commission.

Tim Wu network neutrality net Internet regulation online media FTC Federal Trade Commission

Monopolizing the Internet?

Tim Wu coined the term 'network neutrality' back in 2003 in an influential academic paper and he has been a passionate advocate for it ever since. The underlying concept is that the Internet should be an open marketplace of sites and services that are accessible to all users. In this system, media companies that facilitate Internet traffic would not be able to favor or exclude any content; rather, all material would be equally available to all users.

Why be concerned that select companies may come to dominate the virtual universe? History, Tim Wu argues. In his new book, The Master Switch, Wu explores how other technological innovations - including the telephone, film and radio - have been abused by big business in the past to monopolize communication and media channels.

Wu sees a similar potential for abuse to occur in the digital age. He points to the dominance of 'new monopolists' in Internet technologies, including companies like Apple, Google and Facebook. The danger is, Wu suggests, that these and other large companies could use their proprietary software to decide what Web users can experience online. In his words, 'an unprecedented potential is building for centralized control over what Americans see and hear.'

Tim Wu network neutrality net Internet regulation online media FTC Federal Trade Commission

A Free and Open Web

In addition to being an influential writer and philosopher on a democratic Internet, Wu is a law professor at Columbia University, where he teaches courses on communications and copyright. And the author and academic also recently picked up another gig - that of senior adviser at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the government agency that enforces anti-trust laws and consumer protections.

Wu's appointment as an FTC adviser puts him at a locus of power where he can yield previously unknown influence over government regulation of the Internet and related technologies. Analysts speculate that Wu is likely to target the business practices of some of the largest media companies on the Web for being in violation with current regulations. If the FTC were to take steps against Internet heavyweights, it would likely usher in a new era of stringent controls for online media.

What solution does Wu envision for a truly democratic Internet? According to his latest book, that would be a virtual world governed by 'the separations principle.' In this framework, network providers responsible for transmitting content would not be able to produce content. In effect, the separations principle would eliminate conflicts of interest that currently result in some material being favored based on providers' financial or other interests.

While a system of this kind is far from the current reality, the Internet is still a medium where a lot of intellectual freedom and innovation exist. There remains opportunity, then, to act before large companies become even more firmly entrenched as gatekeepers. And Tim Wu will be working with the FTC to help turn that possibility into reality.

Learn about another academic's concerns about the Googlization of information.