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15 questions for Tim Wu, the net neutrality scholar who’s running for N.Y. lieutenant governor

Tim Wu. ( <a href="">Open Rights Group</a> )

Hardly anyone saw net neutrality becoming a household topic this year, let alone a campaign issue. But somehow it has. The law professor who invented the term is running for New York lieutenant governor alongside Democratic primary candidate Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University, who is running for governor. The two are challenging top party incumbent Andrew Cuomo and his running mate Kathy Hochul, and Wu's surprise involvement in the campaign — which officially kicked off Monday in Albany — could draw even greater scrutiny to the year's biggest topics in tech.

You're running for lieutenant governor. It's been a whirlwind couple of days.

It's terrific. It's really fun. We're underdogs but we think we have a chance and it's really interesting for someone like me who spends a lot of time thinking about policy to start translating these things. To reflect some of the dissatisfaction with the concentration in the media industries and tech industry into political strength.

So you haven't done any political work before — it's mostly been policy.

I actually did help with the '08 Obama campaign.

What was your role there?

I was one of the large lead tech advisers. We did a lot on net neutrality policy, to get Obama's policy to be the policy that you saw. So I was one of many tech advisers and I did some groundwork as well. But yeah, in terms of running for office I've never done this before.

One of the reasons I wanted to do it — I'm always interested in testing — we have, in theory, an open democracy and part of the campaign is, what happens when you run? If you are someone with ideas who thinks New York State could be better, what are the barriers to just running for office for a relatively normal person? In other words, someone who's not a career politician?

I believe in open democracy as much as I believe in an open Internet. It's sort of like the question you face when you start a business on the Internet. What's it actually like when you go for it? I think of it like a start-up campaign.

One of the things that's so interesting is to try to understand whether we have a political system where outsiders can challenge incumbents and go for it.

Speaking of incumbents, you plan to challenge consolidation in the media and tech industries. What's the plan there? Do you have policy proposals, or to raise awareness…?

A long time ago states played a co-equal role with the federal government in merger review. And they still have a certain level of merger review, but I believe as a policy matter, states can and should take a very serious independent line on what they think about mergers in industries that matter to the states. An obvious candidate for that more searching review that a state might want to undertake is some of these big telecom mergers that are heading down the pipeline. I'm not running for attorney general, but using the lieutenant governor's bully pulpit I think one of the proposals is that the state start developing its own approach to the really big mergers that matter for a lot of citizens.

So what exactly is the lever there?

The state can block a merger. They can't block two companies merging in Texas, but Comcast wants to buy Time Warner Cable, which happens to have substantial business operations in New York. It is a New York State merger.

The ones that so directly — and there is independent merger authority and they are exercising it. I'm saying they need to develop an independent way of looking at these mergers. And Comcast-Time Warner Cable being a prime example — a perfect target of what state merger review should be for.

[Wu tells me to hang on as he speaks to someone in the room about lunch. After a few seconds, he comes back.]

Sorry, this campaign never stops moving.

It sounds like you're getting pulled in all sorts of different directions here.

It's interesting. One thing I'll say is, I'm used to dealing with policy-interested reporters. There's so many questions about — do you have enough money to win, do you have — it seems like it's so — I'm not saying telecom policy is always focused on the right issues, but it's amazing to me how many of the issues, when you get into politics, people immediately want to know how much money you're raising or not raising and that's the focus, it seems to me like, "What about…?"

There's a lot of horserace analysis.

Before you get to talking about the issues, there's a lot of logistics.

Yeah. One of the things we're trying to do with this campaign is bring back classic progressive-party issues to the forefront and government corruption, Theodore Roosevelt, Brandeis type of issues. The ideas we're bringing forth, I would say a lot of it is about "are you worried about Andrew Cuomo retribution," I've noticed right away that that's a focus for people.

Can you tell me about how the idea for running came together? Was it a recent thing, or had this been gestating for a while?

It is pretty recent. I wasn't privy to all of Zephyr's calculations. But I think Zephyr sees infrastructure issues — this is interesting. Zephyr thinks the way state governments help economic development often goes wrong, because their usual approach is the opposite of net neutrality: They pick a couple favorites, they give them money, they often don't do that well because they're typically cronies of somebody. And she says if you really want to support all businesses or all workers you need to work on infrastructure and just provide in some sense some neutral support.

So I think she was naturally led to the issues facing the Internet right now. How do you try to support the entire Internet economy? That's the idea I see with net neutrality. You're supporting the entire application sector at once rather than saying, "We think Yahoo is the best search engine, so we're going to give them a state subsidy."

I'm running against Kathy Hochul, who has traditionally taken stances very averse to immigrants, and works as a bank lobbyist. I'm a Wu, of Taiwanese descent, as the son of immigrants. And I think she wanted to draw that contrast very sharply. But these are words that are probably better — it's hard for me to describe myself or why I was appealing to Zephyr.

Did she come to you?

She came to me. She came to me. I was sort of surprised. I was prepared for a quiet summer of writing books and sailing and fishing, and I just thought this is a terrific idea. And she said we can really put in a serious challenge here, and if it's the right kind of primary, we can really win.

Talking about mergers and consolidation, particularly in the cable industry, it seems like a populist stance. But what's the sense of the level of ire at cable companies in New York right now?

I think it's at an all-time high. In our area, prices have gone up and up and up and they don't expect any relief from the merger. The other thing is that in New York, Verizon keeps doing things to annoy people. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Verizon refused to reinstall everyone's phone lines. And okay, maybe we should all be on wireless, but they refused to do things.

And they don't seem afraid of state government anymore. People are like, "They can't even shame them into doing anything anymore." They're just like, "No, we're not going to do it." So there are two very powerful entrenched players here. People are upset about incomplete FiOS deployment. So I think there are a lot of ways people in New York state are upset and it's a microcosm for how people are feeling about the telecom and cable incumbents across the country.

You're testifying on net neutrality in Congress Friday, but does this mean you'll be doing less net neutrality work going forward?

We'll see. There are certain things I might do less of, but I sort of see the race as advocacy for net neutrality. It's not inconsistent. But I've had to cancel out some other things I thought I might do.

You see your role as to apply pressure on state regulators. If they rule against the Comcast merger, what does that hold for the merger in the rest of the country? What kind of precedent does that set?

It's a great question. It ultimately depends on what the federal authorities ultimately do. I personally imagine it would stop the merger. I can't say that with certainty, but I think it would do enough to change the merger that it would have to be scrapped and started from scratch.

Because New York is such a big market.

Yeah. I mean what is Comcast buying it for, exactly, if not New York?

And federal merger law right now — this is getting wonky — everyone thinks there's something wrong with the merger. Nobody can see many benefits to the consumer — very few people can see it. This is where it gets substantive. Federal merger law right now is just configured so it's as if the Comcast merger falls into a loophole. One of the advantage states have is that they don't have to follow federal merger law. So in cases like this, this is exactly a case where they should be setting their own course and figuring out in the bigger picture what exactly is wrong with this merger.

We delved into policy there for a second. One of your big challenges will probably be in conveying all of this substance and policy in a 10-second interaction at a ropeline or in a campaign speech. How are you preparing for that?

I'll tell you — I'm studying the work of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis, who managed to make what we would now call "wonky" telecom and antitrust issues into issues of mass popular appeal. A hundred years ago, antitrust and merger enforcement was front page news. And we live in another era of enormous private concentration. And for some reason we call all these "wonky issues." They're not, really. They affect people more than half a dozen other issues. Day to day, people's lives are affected by concentration and infrastructure. I'm trying to learn from Roosevelt and Brandeis to see how they conveyed — made them matter to the public.

For example, this morning I read the platform of the Progressive Party, from 1912. These guys were great. They make us look mellow. Theodore Roosevelt is like, We need to battle the invisible government, the unholy alliance of public and private corruption. I'm like, these guys have got it. So there's a long tradition of —

Can we expect that kind of rhetoric out of you?

Yeah. You can expect a progressive-style, trust-busting kind of campaign out of me. And I fully intend to bridge that gap between the kind of typical issues in electoral politics and questions involving private power.