SXSW: Tim Wu on Net Neutrality

Tim Wu is talking net neutrality. First has been laying the groundwork….talking about the 2010 legislation that provides for net neutrality.

Now is going back to the 15th century England to make a point about how net neutrality should be considered public infrastructure and therefore should always be publicly available. [Chinese government built the wall, Roman government built the roads, etc.] The English had a different system, where private companies and individuals did things important for all. Roads, ports might be built and run by private parties. English judges noticed that the private parties who owned the infrastructure had enormous power. So they came up with the law of “public callings,” which became known as the common carrier principle. The first case Wu found was related to a blacksmith — judge decreed that a blacksmith could not refuse to serve you. So the principle of net neutrality goes that far back. The second principle related to that was that those owning infrastructure must charge fair prices.

1910—Congress passed a law saying that transmitting information was also common carriage. So, the telephone would be treating like a bridge or a road.

In the 1980s, the FCC decided that computer networks would be allowed to have access to telephone networks. That allowed the development of AOL, CompuServe, etc.

“Compared to classic telecom legislation, the net neutrality rules are very weak.” They do require carriers to let anyone on, but they have no price regulation, no duty of service — your Internet connection doesn’t have to be any good, and it doesn’t fully apply to wireless.

Wu is saying, one way we have to think about net neutrality is, SHOULD we consider it as a common carrier? Is it more like an amusement park — nice to have, but you don’t have to go — or more like the only bridge to an island — an essential service?

Wu is funny here talking about the internet in the 1980s — might have been more like an amusement park…there were weird people there, etc. But now, the internet is an essential service that is an integral part of the economy. It has almost become like electricity, which brings it into that medieval framework — it’s dangerous if you don’t have it. The internet is too important.

Good question from audience: How do you distinguish between the internet and Facebook — it’s easy to imagine that Facebook becomes a “common carrier” whose access is essential to everyone? Wu says, medieval judges might have said that Google or Facebook might become common carriers at some point. But Wu does think there’s a fundamental difference between Facebook/Google and the carriers. Companies carrying the information tend to face very limited competition. They have to invest large sums in physical infrastructure. And the carriers have a tight relationship with the federal government, which grants them some right of ways and licenses.

Another good question: What about common carriers that are also content providers, like AT&T differentiating between U-vers and Netflix content? Wu says that’s censorship. You have an inherent conflict of interest when you’re the carrier and content provider, and you have to have policing to prevent censorship. But we don’t always have that right now.