Tim Wu is a busy man. When he’s not teaching law at Columbia or writing for The New Yorker, he’s testifying before Congress about the FCC proposed net neutrality. And as of last month, Wu is running for lieutenant governor of New York State. Busy might not be the right term, actually. Tim Wu is brimming with purpose.
Tim Wu is answering your questions in the comments of this post right now. Here’s a quick look on what the Columbia law professor’s been up to lately; head to the end to join our chat in progress!
All this seems inevitable, when you look back at Wu’s background. From the time his mum bought the family an Apple II computer in 1980 until now, Wu’s been fascinated with computers. After earning a biochemistry degree from McGill and a law degree from Harvard, he headed to Silicon Valley in 2000, like many in his generation did. And like many in his generation, he became disillusioned.
It wasn’t so much the bursting of the dot com bubble that gave the young internet enthusiast pause. About fifteen years ago, Wu was working in a marketing job at a company that sold network routers, many of which went to China. “Most of our products were designed to control the Internet and extract revenue,” he told Bloomberg in 2007. “My stomach wasn’t in it.”
So a couple years later, Wu landed a teaching job at the University of Virginia and started collaborating with Lawrence Lessig, who had just founded Creative Commons. Lessig encouraged him to write a paper about broadband discrimination in 2003. In this paper, Wu coined a term to describe a concept that would keep giant corporations from taking over the internet, a process that had already begun in his own estimates. Wu called this idea network neutrality — net neutrality for short.
Fast forward a decade and net neutrality is one of the most talked about issues in technology. People are talking about it because it’s in serious jeopardy thanks to some questionable manoeuvring from the FCC who’s long been tasked with regulating the internet. This situation is especially frustrating since, largely due to Wu’s own research, net neutrality used to be protected by the FCC, but a federal court ruled earlier this year that the agency didn’t have the proper authority. Now the FCC is moving forward with a new set of (horrible) rules that would enable fast lanes on the internet and potentially destroy the concept of net neutrality that Wu’s been fighting for all these years.
So now Wu’s on the move. He announced his candidacy for lieutenant governor of New York — running alongside Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout — the same week he was scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee about the future of net neutrality. But his platform goes beyond ensuring the future of the internet.
Wu clearly realises that a number of issues are at stake as we look ahead to the future of technology in America. Like his former mentor Larry Lessig, he’s committed to getting money out of politics, an issue that has to include real solutions to campaign finance reform. Wu also told Gizmodo this week that he’s devoted to ensuring a “tech voice in politics.” On a larger scale, though, he’s still devoted to keeping corporate power at bay.
“If you go back to the 1912 platform of the Progressive Party, they say that the number-one problem with this country is an unholy alliance between a corrupt government system and big business,” Wu told Wired last week. He thinks this is still a problem today, too. “I’ve been there and I’ve watched it first-hand in net neutrality. We have a problem with an invisible government.”
As such, Wu’s first order of business as lieutenant governor would be to block the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Wu knows that the office would give him the proper pulpit to do this, too, since a large amount of TWC’s business is in New York State. And he also wants to set up a better system for reviewing big mergers like this, so that citizens don’t get the short end of the stick like they tend to do in these situations. When big companies merge, competition is inevitably supressed, and innovation goes down with it.
Wu wants to preserve net neutrality today as he did in 2003 (probably more actually). However now, it’s clear that he needs to work in arenas beyond just internet policy to ensure progress. And as that happens everyone can win. That’s what’s happened since the internet was allowed to boom. “It’s been a tide that’s risen all boats,” he said. “The reason we haven’t had a problem over the past 20 years — or 30 depending on how you count it — is because we have de facto net neutrality in place.” And Tim Wu is the man that can get that done.