Tim Wu saw firsthand how people can mess with the internet.
Fifteen years ago, he landed a marketing job with a network equipment maker called Riverstone Networks. Riverstone made network routers, among other things, and it sold many of these to Chinese internet service providers who then used them to block traffic on their networks.
After about a year, he left Riverstone, disillusioned but wiser. And today, Wu says that the time he spent there helped cement the idea that has made him famous: net neutrality. First proposed in a June 2002 memo, net neutrality decreed that internet service providers must treat all traffic equally, and let users do what they wished with their bandwidth. This led to FCC rules that not only prevented ISPs from blocking content, but barred them from discriminating against traffic in other ways.
This past January, however, a federal appeals court struck down the FCC rules, saying the Commission hadn’t established the authority to regulate broadband internet providers in this way. Over the years, the internet has evolved to the point where the notion of a completely neutral network doesn’t really apply. But Wu says that the net neutrality movement remains essential. “I’ve become more convinced of the importance of the principle,” he tells WIRED.
The debate over net neutrality is extremely complicated and highly charged, but for Wu, it all boils down to one thing: ensuring that individuals and businesses–especially small players–get fair treatment on the net.
‘I’ve been there and I’ve watched it first-hand in net neutrality. We have a problem with an invisible government.’
His views are likely to be in the spotlight over the next few months, as the FCC takes another shot at regulating service providers and Wu makes a run for the Lieutenant Governorship of New York State. His platform: fighting corruption, helping small business, terminating the proposed merger between cable giants Comcast and Time Warner—a merger that would further reduce competition in the world of internet access. His inspiration: Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party of a century ago.
“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,” he says, arguing that this is today’s biggest problem too. “I’ve been there and I’ve watched it first-hand in net neutrality. We have a problem with an invisible government.”
Why Your Wi-Fi Router Is Legal
Wu wrote his original net neutrality brief three years before the creation of YouTube. Back then, the internet was a jaggedy, annoying, and rather slow operation, and the net neutrality movement was largely an effort to prevent internet service providers from blocking some rather basic online tools: voice-over-internet-protocol services such as Skype, virtual private networks that let you securely connect to corporate servers, and even home wireless routers. “In the old contract, AT&T defined it as a federal offense to attach a Wi-Fi router,’ Wu says.
So, in many respects, the movement has been hugely successful. So many of us run Wi-Fi routers in our homes—not to mention VoIP services and VPNs—and despite claims from naysayers that neutrality principles would halt the expansion of the internet, broadband connections are now the norm.
“When I was writing in 2003, the main counter-argument was that if you have some kind of neutrality principle, then the incentives to deploy broadband will disappear and nobody will want to do anything and the internet will dry up in some way,” he says. “I just don’t think that’s happened.”
Thanks to widely available home broadband connections from ISPs such as Comcast and Verizon–and indeed, thanks to net neutrality rules—operations like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Netflix have flourished. But with the rise of their online empires–which now involve such enormous amounts of bandwidth-sapping video—the Googles and the Netflixes have been forced to rewire the internet, building their own fast lanes to our phones and laptops. These fast lanes are a necessity on the modern internet, but they also mean that the old notion of net neutrality—which insists that all traffic be treated equally—doesn’t really make sense.
Today there’s a growing concern that that ISPs will charge unfair amounts for fast access to their networks, and that they are short-changing customers by intentionally degrading the quality of online video, which directly competes with other businesses run by big-name ISPs. Comcast, remember, also offers phone services, and its main business is cable television. It even owns NBC, one of the largest cable TV channels. “Maybe we should look at practices that are problematic, like degradation threats,” Wu says.
The Flip in Thinking
What we still need, Wu says, is a better way of regulating internet service providers. One way of doing this is through common carrier law—as defined in the Title II section of the 1934 Telecommunications Act. Basically, this would treat ISPs as utilities. This would allow the government to prevent them from blocking or degrading traffic, but it would also force the ISPs to offer their internet lines to other companies. That creates competition, which is really the best way of ensuring that ISPs behave. As it stands, there’s very little competition.
But as Wu explains, there’s been a strange flip in the way people see the situation. While the idea of net neutrality has been widely accepted, the idea that ISPs should become common carriers is now anathema. It’s not just the phone and cable companies that don’t like this idea. Many people who work for regulation-averse internet companies don’t like it either. And Wu doesn’t get it.
“That should not be controversial,” he says. “Almost everyone thinks about cable and phone companies as utilities. There are some potential legal hurdles; they’ve been grossly exaggerated.”
The ISPs say that light regulation has given them the freedom and financial incentives to build our their infrastructure, but Wu believes that there’s been a decade-long campaign to stigmatize the concept of common carrier regulations.
“I think it’s an attempt to repeal by stigma the law,” he says of the big ISPs. “They don’t like the law, so they’d like to appeal it by stigma.”
The Biggest Threat
One way or another, he says, we need a means of keeping the ISPs in check. Already, there are now serious concerns that cable companies are too powerful. Last month, Level 3, an internet backbone provider that moves data between Comcast and Netflix, complained that big US networks (presumably including Comcast) were allowing traffic to back up at the peering point between the two networks. The implication is that the ISPs are trying to force web companies to pay more for better treatment.
The ISPs say the problem is that, thanks to online video, Netflix and Level 3 are now delivering far more traffic to Comcast’s network than they’re receiving, and they argue that they should pay for this imbalance. But to many people, that’s worrisome.
“They’re concerned about the cable companies making everything more expensive,” says Wu. “Everything they touch, they tend to extract money out of and suck the life out of.”
There are also fears that the Level 3 situation is the precursor to an internet where service providers shake down content providers, threatening them with second-tier performance. In fact, that’s the behavior that worries Tim Wu more than anything else. “Declining to make trivial updates in order to sabotage a site…that’s the main practice that’s the problem today,” he says.
This shows you how tangled the net neutrality debate has become. Some insist that the Comcast-Level 3 debate isn’t about net neutrality. But for Wu—the inventor of net neutrality—it’s the biggest threat to his seminal idea. The danger is that the internet will start to look like Comcast’s cable TV service.
“It gets more expensive all the time,” he says, “but doesn’t seem to get any better.”