Back to the source: An interview with the man who coined “net neutrality”
In 2015, the Obama administration instituted regulations on internet service providers intended to keep them from giving favorable treatment – such as faster loading speeds – to websites that pay extra for it. (Imagine, for instance, Hulu running faster than Netflix for Spectrum customers, because Hulu paid Spectrum for the privilege.) President Donald Trump has pledged to roll back those regulations.
The term “net neutrality” refers to the philosophy that the web should be considered like any other utility and that internet service providers should not be allowed to grant such preferential treatment to the companies that can afford it. Today is Net Neutrality Day, and some of the world’s largest internet companies are protesting by educating their users about the issue and urging them to contact the FCC and Congress to stop the White House from rolling back the rules.
We spoke with Tim Wu, a former adviser to state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and former candidate for lieutenant governor, who coined the phrase “net neutrality” back in 2003, about the importance of a free and open internet and what a rollback on net neutrality could mean for the future of the web.
C&S: The Trump administration has said that it wants to deregulate broadband internet service companies. Is this something that you think is easier said than done?
TW: One, people don’t like it. I don’t know if that’ll stop him, but it’s certainly not popular by any stretch to the imagination. Last time I checked, there’s not that many people rooting for a higher cable bill or excited about paying more for Netflix. There’s no political constituency at all, so that’s one barrier. That doesn’t necessarily stop him, but the second barrier, I’m dubious that the courts will uphold the retraction of net neutrality. They just installed the net neutrality laws two years ago and you’re not allowed to just completely, randomly change the regulations that quickly without things changing. The courts have already been the bete noire of the Trump administration because they demand a basic level of rationality from government, and that isn’t something that’s been demonstrated very often. So I think there’s a good chance the courts will strike down the efforts to kill net neutrality.
C&S: If there’s a rollback, what’s to stop internet companies from promoting their own interests at the expense of users?
TW: That’s certainly something that becomes much easier to do. You can prioritize some things, slow down other things. Everything on the web lives and dies by loading speed. And so, it gives cable the opportunity to have a say over the basic playing field that everyone’s playing on. I don’t think I look forward to that. I mainly think they’d use the absence of net neutrality to raise people's bills and find ways of milking money out of Netflix, Amazon, all those other guys so that your bills will get higher. I just think it means higher costs for consumers, that’s the main story here.
C&S: Should the internet be regulated as a public utility?
TW: Yes. I think it’s become essential to people’s lives. I think that basic broadband access – it’s just like electricity or water at this point. I mean, when you get a new house, what do you do? You get water, you get broadband. It’s even more indispensable than television, and for many people, it is their phone. I think that it’s just become a basic and communities who don’t have it suffer economically. Parts of rural New York have dial-up where you have to use an old modem; there’s no coincidence that those are also the poorest parts of the state. It’s electricity of the 21st century.
C&S: Trump signed a bill in April to roll back FCC privacy rules for ISPs. What can the consumer do to protect themselves?
TW: It’s one thing when you’re on the internet, and let’s say you don’t like Facebook privacy, you can quit Facebook. You can’t quit broadband unless you want to live in a cave. And they potentially know everything you’re doing. So, there’s not a lot the consumer can do unless you want to live in a cave and become a Unabomber or something. That’s why it’s like a public utility. What’s your recourse? There’s no such thing as quitting broadband. There’s situations like this where you’re so outgunned, and there’s no competition. That’s where you need the government on your side. If you quit the internet, how do you get a job? How do you call your family? It’s like saying, OK, just do without electricity or something. I don’t think, in our time, that I have a lot of easy answers to that question.
C&S: How would a rollback harm freedom of the press, considering so many internet providers have their own news outlets?
TW: It’s a perfect tool. Considering especially with vertical integration, there’s a lot more internet providers for buying up news outlets and content. And the temptation to help out your own stuff and punish other people is very great. Why wouldn’t you? There’s a history of this stuff being used for political purposes to favor one party or another. If there’s no rules on that, then why not? I think history suggests that there are serious threats to free expression. Even City & State – a relatively small actor, and it has a very distinct view – but does Comcast or Spectrum want you to thrive? Not really.