In a 2003 paper, Tim Wu — you may remember him from his recent bid for New York lieutenant governor — coined the term "net neutrality." It's since become a familiar term as a Washington policy battle over the future of the Web has spilled over into the rest of the United States. Last week, federal regulators proposed a series of rules designed to protect net neutrality, the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. The following Q&A with Wu has been edited for length and clarity.
What's your reaction to the Federal Communications Commission chairman's draft proposal?
Well, my reaction, like a lot of people's is, it's big. Tom Wheeler basically put his money where his mouth was. He was talking the talk in defense of an open Internet and net neutrality, and I guess he decided the middle of the road is for roadkill. And he went for a full net neutrality, strong net neutrality rule.
I think it could signify that we're in a whole new era of telecom regulation, one centered on a net neutrality rule. I think net neutrality has proven itself over the last 15 years to be pretty good for everyone involved. Obviously, consumers have gotten a lot of new stuff, and it's been good for the American economy and business growing on the Internet. And even the cable companies have real trouble complaining about a product that they make so much money on. And there's some kind of money they don't make, but you saw their share prices go up — they are making a mint as well, and so I just think it's kind of come of age.
A lot of folks who advocated for strong rules are celebrating, but is there anything they have to worry about now moving forward? Or has the Internet won, as a lot of people seem to be putting it?
That's a good question. A couple things: You know how at the end of a movie, there's things left out that could cause a sequel? Well, interconnection isn't fully dealt with. It is under Title II, they did both sender-side and receiver-side. There's a legal regime to deal with it, but no one quite knows how that'll work out.
And I guess the big question is, well, what happens with the Comcast, AT&T mergers — what happens to the industry mergers? Does this mean "Okay, everyone go ahead and merge, net neutrality will take care of you"? That is the big question. What is the commission's vision on concentration? Does it feel it can afford more concentration now, or is it also going to block the mergers?
An analyst told me that, despite Obama's close relationship with Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts, they still didn't get what they wanted out of net neutrality. What do you think this says about the cable industry's position in Washington?
There's gotta be some victory here for the democratic process. When people start paying attention, when there are a lot of voters on the line and it starts to become politically salient — the lobbying power isn't necessarily going to matter.
Do you think we need net neutrality legislation?
I've never thought that we needed legislation in this area.
Do you worry about a future Republican FCC coming in and undoing it all?
You know, I'm not that worried. I'll tell you why. I think net neutrality succeeded first as a norm before it became a law. I mean, people are used to the idea that the Internet should not have slow lanes. I've seen polls of Republicans who think slow lanes aren't any good. They don't like the idea of some content being slowed down. It seems repugnant to free speech, among other things.
So I don't know, I think it might be here to stay.
GOP lawmakers used to oppose net neutrality legislation before they started proposing it. Is it your impression that the Republicans are buying into the norm?
Depends how you phrase it. If you phrase it as "government should regulate the Internet," they're not into that. But if you phrase it as "slow lanes, they don't seem that great, and small business should have a fighting chance with large business," that actually seems pretty attractive. So for the average Republican, this isn't something like the abortion issue or immigration. What does a consumer get out of a lack of net neutrality rules? I just don't think the Republicans — if they want to use their political capital, I don't see what they have to gain in this area, because all it really is is, maybe the cable companies make more money, and that doesn't seem exactly like an issue I'd want to go to bat with in an election.
Turning to the inevitable lawsuit that's going to come out of this —
Probably there'll be a lawsuit. But there's a small chance there won't be. The only reason I say that is that if the stock prices keep going up — which, maybe they won't — how do you defend suing to invalidate something which has added value to your company? Government does something, your stocks go up and you sue to reverse that — I don't know how you justify that.
I was speaking to an analyst who said this is a short-term rally reflecting the idea that 'Whew, it could've been worse.'
Obviously rate regulation is the main concern, but I don't think realistically anyone thinks that's coming anytime soon.
The vast majority of people think a lawsuit is coming —
I do think it's probable, that it's likely. Uh-huh.
— you're a proponent of net neutrality, so presumably you think Wheeler's rules stand a good chance of surviving legal challenge.
Yeah. I think he may get a couple things knocked off, not sure what they'll be, but I think the bulk of them will survive. He has competent lawyers. If you take a second-year law student and you compare the Title I authority they kept losing under to the Title II — it's such a difference.
I've been right on every one of these. I was sure they were going to lose last time and I was right, and I'm sure they're going to win — although they're going to get a few things knocked off — this time.