Net neutrality plan is 'right there in the middle'

Saturday, December 4, 2010; 5:17 PM

Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University, author of the (excellent) new book "The Master Switch" and chairman of the board of Free Press. Oh, and he coined the term "net neutrality" in 2003. He spoke with me from Canada, where he's promoting his book, about the net neutrality rules that Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, outlined this week. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Ezra Klein: How do you judge the worth of a net neutrality proposal?

Tim Wu: The point of net neutrality is whether it makes it easier for entrepreneurs to challenge existing companies. That's the best way to judge it. There are certain things about the FCC's proposed rules that make it a lot easier. For example, there's a company called Zoom trying to sell cheap cable modems. Then you wouldn't have to lease them monthly from your cable company. But they can't really sell them in the absence of a net neutrality rule saying you can hook whatever modem you want into your cable connection.

The more important kind of dispute is: I have a new idea for a different kind of geo-location start-up. Can I get the consumers?

And so what features are you looking for specifically?

As a checklist, here's what you want: First, does it prevent blocking? Number two, does it let consumers attach whatever devices they want to their Internet connection? Number three, does it ban paid prioritization, i.e, a deal between Comcast and Hulu that excludes or slows Netflix on Comcast's network? Number four, can it survive a challenge in the federal courts? And five, does it include wireless?

The FCC's plan has got the blocking. It's partly there on prioritization. It has the attachment rule. It doesn't have a secure legal foundation so it's vulnerable to the courts. And it's partly there on wireless. So that's like a two and a half out of five. It's the classic Obama thing: Right there in the middle!

On prioritization, my understanding is that there are a few separate questions. One is discrimination, which decides whether Comcast can decide to slow traffic to Hulu. Then there's the question of usage, whether Comcast can charge me more because I use a ton of bandwidth. And, intuitively, pricing based on usage makes sense to me.

That's perfectly fine, in my view. I think of bandwidth and energy as very similar. They're two of the most important utilities in our life. And if you turn on all your lights and crank the heat, you'll pay more. And if you're cranking Netflix all day and downloading 10 gigs, I've never thought it unreasonable to have to pay more. That's a billing question, not a net neutrality question. There's no constitutional right to unlimited bandwidth. I say the FCC is only partly there on prioritization because there's nothing on wireless in their prioritization language. So it's not clear if it applies, or if Google and Verizon could strike a deal with Netflix to make it faster than its competitors on the Android phones.

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