The Master Switch

Wu, T. (2010). The master switch: the rise and fall of information empires. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Tim Wu, a professor at the Columbia Law school and a fierce defender of Internet neutrality (he invented the term "net neutrality"), has written a great book about the rise and fall of media neutrality throughout American history. Whether it is the early days of motion pictures (when all the film studios were on the east coast, mostly New York), radio, or the telephone, each medium started with individuals able to explore the potential coupled with their own creativity as small, independent entrepreneurs, but as the medium gained respectability and business potential, big business stepped in to take it away, own it, exploit it, and where necessary get the congress to enact legislation giving them control (two notable examples being the rise of RCA in radio and AT&T for the telephone). These companies formed legal monopolies, preventing competition, stifling innovation (but with the side benefits of reliable, dependable products). (Although Wu deplores the takeover, he is honest enough to discuss the virtues of monopolistic control.)

The story was repeated for television, FM radio, and now the dominance of cable companies. AT&T was split up into pieces, only today to have rejuvenated itself, where it is now called, AT&T all over again. Newspapers, publishing ... all fell. Will the Internet be next?

Tim Wu has just been appointed senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission, a move that has silenced him for awhile (he is no longer free to attack companies in public writings, for example), but in theory, that gives him more power over regulatory authorities who will have major say over any new developments.

The book is fun to read, as titans battle over control. It is also disturbing to read, for these battles have greatly impacted the music, movies, and news that we experience. Here, for example, is his view on Facebook:

I think Facebook is looking for a mentor, they are looking for a role model. Right now it is choosing between Apple and Google in this great war between open and closed. It is possible that whatever side Facebook takes will have a lot to do with the future of how we communicate. (Interview with Nick Bilton, New York Times, Nov. 14, 2010.)

Cecilia Kang of the Washington Post quoted him as saying (Feb. 8, 2011):

"I think there are critical periods in industry formation where there is a strong need for a public voice" Wu said in a statement. "The Internet platform has given rise to new and hard problems of privacy, data retention, deceptive advertising, billing practices, standard-setting and vertical foreclosure just to name a few."

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