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Tim Wu



Tim Wu and Apple are likely keeping a wary eye on each other every day of their lives.

As a vociferous proponent of a ‘free’ Internet, Tim’s idea of public enemy number one is any corporation that aims to control information and content. That puts the notoriously closed Apple firmly in his sights.

And his recent appointment to America’s Federal Trade Commission as a Senior Advisor makes it likely that Apple, in turn, returns the favour.

Apple isn’t his core problem; rather, it’s symptomatic of what he sees as the increasingly monopolistic nature of the Internet. That, too, isn’t new, as he illustrates in his pathbreaking The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. The history of communication is rife, says Tim, with examples of originally free technologies becoming concentrated in the hands – and subject to the motivations of – a single or few monopolies. As we become almost universally reliant on the Internet for dissemination of information, it pays to heed Wu’s sweeping history of new media in the 20th century – illustrating how radio, telephone, television, and film were born free and open and “invited unrestricted use and enterprising experiment until some would-be mogul battled his way to total domination.”

It’s an unusual area of interest for an academic and lawyer but then Tim has long been unconventional by the standards of both. His highly successful career, for instance, seems more fortuitous accident than design. After studying biochemistry at McGill – influenced by his scientist parents – Wu impulsively applied to and was accepted into Harvard’s law school. It was in his second year that he took a course that gave him his eureka moment: The Law of Cyberspace, taught by opinionated visiting professor Lawrence Lessig that focused on the need to have precise regulations to prevent businesses and special interests from controlling the Internet.

Graduating from Harvard, Tim interned with two of the most influential legal names in the business, Richard Posner (often called the greatest living American jurist) and Stephen Breyer, and seemed slated for a swanky legal career – until his latent disruptiveness stepped in. Again.

It was time to go to Silicon Valley.

In the kind of irony that life routinely seems to dish out, he found work at a company that sold devices designed to filter and block certain content on the Internet. Its biggest client, unsurprisingly, was the Chinese government. “Something about the whole thing didn’t sit well with me,” he said in a New York Times interview recently. Spurred by his discomfort, in 2003 he wrote a paper that proposed the idea of ‘network neutrality’ – a concept that holds that companies providing Internet services treat all sources of data equally and not give preferential treatment to content providers who pay for faster transmission, or to their own content; it also held that they couldn’t block or hinder content representing controversial points of view.

The phrase became an instant catchphrase and turned Wu into a modern tech evangelist: media reform group Free Press made him chairman while Google engaged him as an unpaid ‘fellow’.

He held visiting professorships at a host of universities during this phase, including Virginia, Columbia Law School and Stanford; then went on to become a full professor at Columbia, teaching copyright law and communications. His popularity over network neutrality, though, remained skyhigh, turning him into a kind of academic rockstar.

But Master Switch and, more recently, his appointment as advisor to the Federal Trade Commission mean that his role has gone beyond raising red flags to having a direct impact on policy – which explains the descriptors of ‘controversial’ and ‘influential’ that seem to precede any mention of him on the Internet.

He holds that a few companies are tending to dominate and therefore set norms for key sectors – Google in online search, Amazon in retail, Apple in digital media and Facebook in social networking – a view that could well result in new policies for these platforms if he finds their ‘openness’ suspect. “Google for a long time has been one of the most powerful advocates for net neutrality in Washington,” he said in an interview to tech blog Engadget. “But in recent times, interest in protecting Android has begun to infect their core values.”

Fortunately for the Internet, Tim’s watching out for it.

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