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Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly

Blog: Tim Wu on why undoing net neutrality may be harder than it looks

Kai Ryssdal and Molly Wood Apr 25, 2017
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Today FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced new plans to undo rules for net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should allow equal access to all content and applications. On the third episode of Make Me Smart, we talked with Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University and the man who coined the phrase “network neutrality” all the way back in 2003 when he was talking about the future of the internet. He discussed his recent book, “The Attention Merchants,” and who could be the winners and losers if net neutrality policy does change. 

Kai Ryssdal: So Molly pointed out up top that you were the guy who is commonly credited with coming up with the phrase net neutrality, like, 13 something years ago. What were you thinking? What was your was your mindset?

Tim Wu: Oh, well I thought, you know, alliteration would work. I mean the concept had been in around, maybe we need to think about the carrier’s phone companies and cable and you know, when they got to the internet what they would do with it. And I just wrote a paper, and I was, like, well maybe they need to be neutral in how they treat stuff, and it’s like looking around. My original phrase was “inter-network neutrality.” That didn’t really catch on. And then I came up with “network neutrality” and then “net neutrality.” The other term I had was “broadband discrimination,” and I didn’t know which was going to catch on. And somehow, you know, these things you can’t control language. And that’s what caught on somehow.

Molly Wood: What are you thinking as you watch this sort of new FCC address, zero rating. Maybe talk about overturning Title II reclassification. Where’s your mindset about the future right now?

Wu: Well, I’m not completely surprised. Pai made one of his trademark ideas to be against net neutrality regulation. Actually, he sometimes said he likes net neutrality as a principle but doesn’t think there should be any enforcement of it. That’s the kind of things people will say sometimes to be polite, I guess, in a sense, because the underlying idea of net neutrality is very popular, and this gets to my comment — I think it may end up being a little harder than it looks.

Ryssdal: You mean unpacking what’s been done so far?

Wu: Yeah, undoing net neutrality, reversing the regulation may be harder than it looks. And I’m not sure it’s within Pai’s power in the short term. You know, I don’t want to get into the legal reason, but basically when an agency does something, it’s not that easy a year later, two years later to undo it unless you have a reason.

Wood: So I want to go back to zero rating just for a second only because at the top of the show, Kai said he didn’t think that zero rating sounded like such a big deal. What do you think, Tim?

Wu: Well, do I think it’s the end of life?

Ryssdal: Well, wait let me characterize what I said. Why can’t I do what I want with my with my pipes, is in essence what I was saying.

Wu: That’s the same thing. You know, why not let Comcast block the New York Times if they want to do a deal with Bloomberg or something? You know, it has to do with what whether you think certain parts of the nation’s infrastructure that should be somewhat neutral, should, you know, carry content equally. You know the phone networks just take a classic example. You’re not allowed to block some people from calling other people. You have to be open, electric networks you can plug in any appliance. Question has always been “Should the internet be the same?” And sure, there are owners, but they’re owners of what is essentially a public calling, a public kind of business. And it’s been like that, for you know, for hundreds of years or at least a 150 years. And I think it’s something that’s been very good for the economy and for the culture of the United States.

Kai Ryssdal: Let me get a listener question in here. A guy by the name of Les Krauss wrote, and he wants to know if you could give us a sense of the winners and losers as policies toward net neutrality change in this administration.

Wu: So in terms of private sector?

Ryssdal: Yeah.

Wu: I mean, the winners are unquestionably the cable companies and the phone companies and their wireless versions in the sense that they have the opportunity to go around all these internet companies if net neutrality starts to fade and be like, “Hey, give us more money or we’re going to mess with you.” You know, kind of Tony Soprano business model. That looks good for them.

There is a chance that some of the big internet companies end up being winners in a certain sense. They, if they cut a sweetheart deal, let’s say Google or Facebook cut a big sweetheart deal with Comcast, then it becomes even harder to compete with them. You know, if you’re poor little duck-duck-go or some other search engine and now Google not only is Google, but they also now have this deal with Comcast Charter, and, you know, the other big phone companies and broadband companies, it’s like, “Wow that’s even harder to get started.” So they are also potentially winners. It kind of depends. Yeah, so basically good for the big guys, bad for diversity of speech, bad for innovation, bad for a dynamic economy. That’s my bottom line. Bad for entrepreneurs, very bad for entrepreneurs in the sense that you know the internet has fostered a huge amount of entrepreneurism based on the idea you write an app or you write a program and you just reach people all over the internet. Well, what if it’s now OK, now you have to sort of make a deal with Comcast and Comcast is already friends with Google, so Google says no don’t do that deal with them. It gets a lot more difficult when you have motivated private owners of the public infrastructure. So I think it’s terrible, but that’s of course I do.

Wood: I like it though, that’s a good summation. Let’s talk about your book which I think you know that sounds like an awkward transition but we’re really talking about the power of communication. And like I said this book couldn’t be more timely. “The Attention Merchants,” and as our producer described it as a high-speed chase which I think it kind of is, of the history of almost 200 years of advertising and entertainment, and political and technological influence seekers. What made you tackle this topic and did you know it was going to turn out to be so timely now?

Wu: You know, I didn’t know. Great question. A mixture of academic and personal reasons. Personally, I had these experiences where I started noticing that I was losing control of my own attention. You know I would sit down to write an email and then all of a sudden two hours go by, “What just happened?” You know and I was like something weird is going on here. And I kind of wanted to understand how that was going on and understand the attention economy better. I don’t think we have a good feeling for it so I’m kind of a person who is all about going to the beginning of the Nile to find the source. And I wanted to see where it all started so that led me back to the early — I wanted to see where is this business model come from where you gather a crowd and resell their attention. It led me back to tabloid newspapers in the 1830s and you know it’s a, I guess a high-speed chase, of just trying to get our you know minds and eyes focused on things for even tiny bits of time and make money off that.

Ryssdal: It’s so funny because you know tiny bits of time which is what our attention is sliced up into now. This idea of attention as a commodity is not a new thing as you point out.

Wu: No, it’s not you know broadcast television completely depended on the attention of viewers to make money. I pointed out newspapers. So it’s new in the grand scheme of things. You know it’s not like thousands of years old but it’s old in terms of our generation where we think anything older than a year is old. So it’s an ad in that sense but they’re actually, I point out in the book, there is an even further tradition associated with religion and religious organizations wanting to have people have rituals where they pray every day or go to church on Sundays or keep certain times like the Sabbath,you know as sacred for them. These days we have primetime, you have got to check into Facebook every day. If you don’t go to Facebook every day it’s like a form of sin, at least to Facebook. So you know there’s direct links between organized religion and the copying of those techniques which are in the book. And so it’s a longer history in that sense.

Wood: Yeah, and political propaganda and all of it. But you also point out that you know as sort of the realization that religious and political propaganda are things that can grab people’s attention and that starts to get applied to advertising, you talk about how economic survival depends on grabbing the attention of more and more and more people and becomes a race to the bottom in some ways. So I guess the question is it like the same as every kid in the backseat. Are we there yet? Are we at the bottom?

Wu: Oh, I think in many ways we are at the bottom. You know these things go through peaks and valleys. And I think we can come back but right now we’re at a very, very low moment. You know we’re at kind of where newspapers were at their worst during the heyday of fake news. The real heyday of fake news was in the 1830s. In fact the book opens with the very first so-called free or penny newspaper struggling and deciding that the key to solving old problems is publishing stories about life on the moon, which ultimately leads to discovery of man bats on the moon.

Wood: Wasn’t that there was a hole within the U.S. World and News report, right? There was a bat boy like that whole long bat boy thing that early 90s or something and I was like “Oh my God, it came from the New York side,” and it blew my mind.

Wu: Which was fake news. I mean fake news, you talk about race to the bottom. A good sign that you’re in a race to the bottom is a proliferation of fake news and a loss of veracity in pervasive media. And so I think that’s a pretty good warning sign. We’ve been here before. You know every so often you get to fake news. In totalitarian regimes are full of fake news. I mean that’s just like the authority says what the news is and you never figure out what’s right or wrong — Soviet Union, Nazi Germany. The fact that you know we’re in that phase right now is to me a big warning sign.

Ryssdal: Do you look at it and go, ‘Man, could have told you this was coming?’

Wu: You know if my book is successful it foretells, if I have been a genius I would have written this, but it foretells that there will arise a lord of the attention merchants who uses the techniques of commercial media, of celebrity reality television, and of sort of pervasive social media which can jump over the media and reach people directly like Twitter and uses that as a device towards accumulating political power and therefore transforming politics as we know it into a part of the entertainment industry. 

Every sort of factor is there to predict the rise of Trump. The opportunity is just sitting there, and I sense that someone could grab it. I wasn’t smart enough to think it would be him because I like many other people kind of think he’s incompetent, but he’s not incompetent at what it counts, which is he is winning. Look here we are again talking about him. He wins every attentional battle. If you’re keeping score ratings wise he is the winner of all-time. You know you go to other countries people are talking about him. So if you care about good results or you care about popularity, not a winner, but just pure ratings attention, amount of time focused on some person, he is the king of all the attention merchants.  

Wood: OK, but Tim, you also talk as you sort of explore the cyclical nature of this attention pedaling and attention grabbing. You talk a lot about the backlash…. You know, if you could predict our sort of next backlash. Are we there? Is that this sort of protest economy that we’re starting to see?

Wu: I will tell you the grounds are all there. Now if you look at the long length of time, attentional strategies immersive, intrusive, intensive strategies, the one great hope is they eventually lead to a massive kind of backlash where people have had it. They can’t stand any more just being subjected to intentional manipulation and control. And I believe you know there is the possibility of a real rejection of the ways we are gaining information right now and people moving away on mass to something different. I know exactly what that would be and it’s not going to be easy but you know almost a mass ignoring. And you know, and I think I’ll tell you that the current president’s greatest fear is not losing but being ignored and it will be a vast tuning out of just the nonsense and that in a really strange, almost like mythical way, would rob this presidency of its power.

Ryssdal: That’s interesting though because that requires, while the president only has one guy who has to do his own thing, the collective ignoring is a collective exercise of will communally by millions and millions.

Wu: It would be very challenging and I as much as anyone can’t resist like, “OK, what absurd thing just happened today?” But you know, like people got sick of “Jersey Shore” eventually right?  You know it happens. If you live by attention, you die by attention and believe it or not its the source of this presidency’s power.  And you know those are the seeds of it, of some of the downfall. So I also think that there’s some real opportunity for people to rethink the web and other public media and what we want for it. I think subscription models are on the rise, add free models on the rise. People are starting to understand if you want good content you actually have to pay for it. And I believe there’s a potential for another golden age for the web and other internet content and like there is with TV where there’s just enough money to go around for a lot of great stuff. So I’m actually optimistic, but I think we’re in a very dark place right now.

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