In a speech on the closing day of the Public Library Association Conference last weekend, Columbia law professor and author Tim Wu told librarians that restoring net neutrality protections should be a top priority, and warned the tech industry that regulation is almost certainly coming as Americans learn more about how their data is being abused.
“I think we’re at an important moment in our democracy, a moment where the very basics of the speech equation, of the information flow equation, have fundamentally transformed how we live and how this country is governed,” Wu said. “And what we need to do is to figure out who are the entities who need to bear more responsibility, who need a level of oversight, who need to be the trustees of our time. We have always understood that some entities, some businesses must operate in a public facing way, must operate with special duties, must by virtue of their essential [roles], their power, their ability to shape our very republic, that they must operate under public oversight. And I think that time is coming, and I think it is coming faster than any of us imagined.”
In his talk, Wu voiced his concern with recent changes in our information ecosystem, from the repeal of net neutrality to the advent of social media, subjects he has written about in highly regarded books. In 2010, he published The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, and in 2016, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. In a 2003 academic paper, Wu is credited with coining the term "net neutrality."
What has led us this watershed moment, where social media has transformed from a “friendly way to see what your friend's children look like” to a data-gathering operation capable of creating mayhem in our democracy? It all stems from advertising, Wu explained, and the sophisticated way advertisers target us in the digital age.
“When you have a business model that is focused on maximizing time on site, that will lead you in dark directions. It means you want people to be addicted,” Wu said. “Facebook was forced by its business model to become a machine of mass surveillance, of time sucking, and mass manipulation.”
Wu pointed to the newspapers of the 1830s—which first began viewing the audience as the product—and which then began focusing on false stories, gore, and scandal to capture people's attention. The lesson being: when consumer attention is the product, it will almost always create a race to the bottom.
“The original sin of Google and Facebook and other web publishers is they all chose advertising as their only business model," Wu said, "and tied themselves to this business of attention harvesting.”
Net Neutrality: ‘As Important as the First Amendment’
Wu also implored librarians to remain engaged in the fight to restore net neutrality, which was repealed by the Trump administration's F.C.C. in December of 2017, over a large public outcry.
“If we do one thing over the next few years,” he said, “it must be to restore net neutrality. It must be to restore our informational freedoms.”
Wu reflected on how the time he spent at a now-defunct Silicon Valley startup in the early 2000s started him thinking about the principles he would later pull together as the theory of net neutrality. “I started to see the desire of cable companies and other large companies to control information much more than the Internet wanted to be controlled,” Wu recalled. “That they wanted the ability to prioritize, and discriminate against some content, and above all, they wanted the ability to control things that might threaten their business models.”
Wu said that he had already been growing increasingly “uneasy” over the desire of the cable and phone industries to make the Internet function “like cable television”—and then he was tasked with selling his then-employer’s products in China, where the government insisted on "something that could at some level be censored, controlled, or blocked,” he said. That experience, he said, helped him form the basis of net neutrality—the “fundamental idea that the user should decide what the Internet is” and “that the carrier shouldn’t get in the way.” The Internet, Wu said “should be a medium in the true sense of the word."
For a decade preceding Trump’s election, net neutrality was the norm, even before it was formally adopted by the F.C.C. under the Obama Administration. It was popular, and non-partisan, Wu noted—and, he said, the Internet flourished.
“I think giving people the opportunity, the possibility to come up with things and then share them worked,” he said. “During this era we had the birth of the blog, the birth of sharing home videos on places like YouTube, the birth of early social media, and also the birth of Wikipedia. Now, none of these things are perfect. There’s reason to suggest that Wikipedia has mistakes and some home videos are terrible, and many blogs were tedious and boring. But it was what the people were doing, and that was something very beautiful.”
Of course, also during this same period, he noted, new companies emerged that threatened the status quo—like Skype, which offered free phone calls, and NetFlix, which was “the beginning of the challenge” to the television model.
“I don’t think you have companies like Netflix without net neutrality,” Wu said, adding that "the track record is so strong, it’s hard to believe that there would be any real opposition to net neutrality.”
So, why then was it one of the first things the Trump administration sought to go after?
“I think it comes back to the idea that the free flow of information can be very threatening to those who wish to consolidate their power,” Wu told librarians. “I think it comes down to the idea that the censorial instinct remains very strong.”
He stressed that laws and policies like net neutrality, which “are designed to ensure and guarantee a baseline for the free flow of information are “as important, if not more important, than the First Amendment” in the digital age.
“It’s not surprising that the Russian government doesn’t respect net neutrality; that the Chinese government doesn’t respect net neutrality; that the most oppressive regimes are all opponents of net neutrality,” Wu said. “There is a pattern, and it is sad that this country has joined those ranks.”