Tim Wu was barely 30 years old when a concept he invented, network neutrality, became a central part of internet policy debates. Now, a decade later, he's not only trying to reinvent the concept for a changing internet —he's seeking to transform New York politics, too.
Wu is running for Lieutenant Governor of New York, and he got a big boost on Wednesday when The New York Times endorsed him in his Democratic primary race against Kathy Hochul. Hochul is the running mate of incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo, while Wu is running alongside a fellow legal scholar, Zephyr Teachout.
A law professor at Columbia, Wu is an unconventional candidate. But he's no stranger to politics and government. He participated in Barack Obama's 2008 campaign for president and worked as an advisor to the Federal Trade Commission from 2011 to 2012. He also has more experience communicating with the general public than most academics. He has written regularly for Slate, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other publications for more than a decade.
"I want to be the Lt. Governor of NY state," Wu told me in a June interview (which I'm reposting with an updated intro). "I think I have a pretty decent chance of winning." At the time I was skeptical. But the Times endorsement makes Wu's campaign look like a bit less of a long shot.
Laboratories of democracy
Wu hopes to use a conservative idea — federalism — to promote liberal goals. "I want to re-invigorate the state as a place for policy experimentation and new ideas," he says.
He points out that the law actually gives state regulators a lot of authority over the telecom issues that have been Wu's focus over the last decade. However, he says, "there's been a sense of 'follow the leader'" among state policymakers, in New York and elsewhere, that have prevented them from using that power.
He points to Comcast's proposed merger with Time Warner Cable as an example. The deal would create a behemoth that would control more than a third of the national broadband market and an even larger share of high-speed connections. The merged company could have unprecedented power over the flow of information online, threatening the level playing field that has made the internet a fertile platform for innovation. Wu notes that the New York state government could block the merger from taking effect in New York, and he urges the regulators who are in office now to do so.
And state policymakers have other levers at their disposal, too. Wu points out that the states played a significant role in the Microsoft antitrust case of the 1990s. Privacy is another issue where Wu believes states could take a more active role.
The evolving concept of network neutrality
Network neutrality is the idea that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally no matter who sent it or what kind of information it contains. Advocates such as Wu argue that the internet's level playing field has been responsible for the network's dynamism. They say it's the reason that companies like Facebook and Uber have been able to grow from tiny startups into billion-dollar businesses. Net neutrality advocates want to preserve the internet's openness by prohibiting ISPs from setting aside a "fast lane" on their networks available only to the wealthy few.
Wu faults Obama's Federal Communications Commission for its timid approach to network neutrality. In 2010, the FCC issued an Open Internet Order designed to protect network neutrality. However, that order was struck down by the courts earlier this year. Wu dubbed the approach the FCC took in 2010 a "FEMA-level fail." Facing intense pressure from both sides of the network neutrality debate, the FCC had tried to split the difference, building network neutrality regulations on a narrow legal foundation. Ironically, the more aggressive approach (known to insiders as reclassification) many liberals favored in 2010 would have had a stronger chance of surviving legal challenge.
Yet the larger problem with those rules is not that they were struck down by the courts. It's that they wouldn't have addressed emerging threats to the internet such as Comcast and Verizon's efforts to force Netflix to pay to deliver traffic to their customers. Those rules (both the original ones from 2010 and the new rules the FCC is working on in the wake of January's court setback) only govern what happens inside Comcast's network, not how it interconnects with other networks.
But Wu argues that this conception of network neutrality is too narrow. "It's really important that the public remain involved in these conversations," Wu says. "I think network neutrality is how the public has learned to talk about the conditions of competition over the wires."
For the average member of the public, the dispute between Comcast and Netflix doesn't look any different from the kind of "fast lane" arrangement Wu has been warning about for more than a decade.
While Wu thinks the FCC hasn't been ambitious enough in the past, he credits the agency for beginning to take this broader concept of network neutrality seriously. Last week, the FCC announced that it had begun collecting data on the interconnection practices of Comcast, Verizon, and other incumbents.
"I think one thing the FCC is doing is exactly right is trying to get to the bottom of the problem," Wu says. Wu recognizes that the interconnection market is complex, and it's important for regulators to understand how it works before trying to intervene.
"An unholy alliance with corrupt political systems"
Wu's 2010 book, The Master Switch, focused a lot on the early 20th century, a time of rapid media consolidation. Wu sees a lot of parallels between that period and the situation Americans face today.
"I'm running on a Progressive Party circa 1912 type of platform," Wu says, referring to the party that was formed around Teddy Roosevelt's unsuccessful campaign for president that year.
"The issues that concern New Yorkers are really quite similar to those 100 years ago." Wu says. "Excessive private concentration and an unholy alliance with corrupt political systems."
Wu sees Cuomo as part of that unholy alliance. "He likes to create schemes where he hands out favors," Wu says. Inevitably, in Wu's view, those favors go to the people with political power, leaving the rest of the state to pay the tab. He points to the governor's Startup NY program, which provides tax breaks to selected startups associated with state universities, as an example. Wu vows to take a different approach, focusing on policies that benefit New York businesses and consumers broadly rather than providing targeted aid to favored groups. (Vox's Andrew Prokop covered liberals' dissatisfaction with Cuomo last month.)
The audacity of hope
Yet there's reason to be skeptical that this pair of legal academics would truly clean up New York politics. Gov. Cuomo has a vast campaign warchest, the backing of many powerful groups in the state, and a 63 percent approval rating with voters. Beating him won't be easy.
And if they do get elected, reforming Albany might be an even bigger struggle. Six years ago another law professor campaigned for president on themes similar to those Teachout and Wu are using today. Yet Wu argues that the Obama administration has been a disappointment to tech-savvy liberals like himself.
Wu faults the Obama administration for excessive NSA spying, a timid approach to network neutrality, and the botched rollout of healthcare.gov. While the Obamacare website is now fixed, Wu says, the real lesson of that fiasco is that Obama hasn't truly managed to transform the way government deals with tech. "We're still outsourcing to random guys who do the same crappy stuff they've always done," Wu says.
Wu suspects Obama accumulated too many political debts in his climb from obscure Illinois state legislator to president of the United States. Once Obama reached the White House, Wu says, he felt obligated to repay some of the favors that had made his election possible. That meant perpetuating policies that benefit insiders at the expense of the general public.
"We're trying to be the untouchables," Wu says. "It's naive to expect that you'll be immune to all pressures, but I'm strongly committed to a the kind of government that isn't about handing out individualized favors."
Timothy B. Lee What do you hope your run for lieutenant governor will accomplish?
Tim Wu I want to win the race. I want to be the Lt. Governor of New York State. I think I have a pretty decent chance of winning.
I want to re-invigorate the state as a place for policy experimentation and new ideas. Over the last decade, we've learned that so many systems work better when you have thoughtful and serious decentralized actors trying to solve the problems the whole country faces. It's just like how a market works better when you have entities competing and trying out new approaches. I'm trying to put my money where my mouth is and focus on state policy.
Timothy B. Lee Can you describe how you got involved in the campaign?
Tim Wu I started having a conversation with Zephyr [Teachout]. The more I thought about it, I realized how much the idea appealed to me. One of the things she said that I found appealing is the opportunity to redefine what the lt. governor does in a symbolic position — it was kind of an offer I couldn't refuse. She made it clear that her campaign would provide many of the resources necessary, like getting on the ballot, much of the campaign staff. And she made very clear from the beginning that she didn't want to dictate my positions, that my job wasn't just to shout amen. I wasn't meant to be her amen chorus.
Timothy B. Lee What are some examples of policy areas where state regulators could be doing more?
Tim Wu Sometimes there are things that are thought of as federal issues but that's a matter of emphasis but not actually as legal design. One of the things I'm trying to do is renovate the way we approach tech problems in this country. We assume they're concentrated at the federal level but when you look at the actual laws, the states have far more authority than might first appear, being as they are nation-states that agreed to give up some of their authority to the federal government. I don't want to sound like a secessionist or something, but they do have considerable authority.
Take telecom policy, for example. The New York state government must sign off on the Comcast merger and approve it. It has clear statutory authority to block the merger within its borders, which would be a major part of the merger. I think the state officials work hard but there's been a sense of "follow the leader" — e.g. the federal government. There's legal room for the states to chart a distinct course.
The same is true of antitrust policy, which affects many of the issues I'm concerned about when it comes to excessive concentration of the internet. Once again, the state governments could chart a different course with their own antitrust authority. They have done so in the past. The case against Microsoft was very important in the history of technology. It was initiated by Texas.
I am urging the New York Public Service Commission to block the merger. One of the things I think that the state sometimes gets tempted to do, which I don't agree with, is to use power to extract a few goodies here and there. I think that that's actually not a good approach. The New York state government should avoid things where it uses its authority to hand out a few favors to local business. Instead, it should do things in the broad interest of consumers to block the merger.
Timothy B. Lee Are there other examples of policy areas where states could be more active?
Tim Wu I'll give you an example of where states have done things independently — states that didn't go with the federal healthcare.gov site, have had a much better time of it. That's a small example, but I think a telling example. New York was one of the states that went separate, and it was much better.
Privacy protection is another area where the state could potentially do more. States could have different consumer protection laws if it felt there was a problem. If there's a failure at the federal level to do something, I sometimes think states should think about things independently.
Timothy B. Lee In recent months, there's been growing concern that incumbent broadband providers might use their leverage in the interconnection market to undermine the level playing field online. The recent dispute between Netflix and Comcast is the example that has gotten the most attention. How do you think policymakers should be approaching this issue?
Tim Wu I think one thing the FCC is doing is exactly right, which is trying to get to the bottom of the problem. It's kind of, this is I'm saying this without blame, why do people suddenly double their internet speed and nothing happens. You sign up for more internet speed. You double your speed, it's still not running well — what's going on? I strongly agree with what the FCC has done, which is before trying to say, "Ok we need this rule or that rule," trying to understand what is causing the problem. That information in my case will completely change what I say is the policy.
Timothy B. Lee Some people have defined network neutrality in a way that doesn't include this kind of interconnection dispute. For example, the Open Internet Order the FCC is considering right now wouldn't govern interconnection issues. Do you think we need a new concept to describe this type of threat to the open internet? Or do you think the concept of net neutrality is broad enough to encompass all of these issues?
Tim Wu I think it's really important that the public remain involved in these conversations. I think network neutrality is how the public has learned to talk about the conditions of competition over the wires. Net neutrality was not always precise at the very beginning. Not as if it had this scientific meaning. And I notice, I was just asked at an event on Wednesday, it was a big network neutrality event, and pretty soon, without much delay, we started talking about whether or not Comcast was unfairly threatening degradation to extract money from Netflix. Right away, this was a way for the public to talk about it. I think it's useful to just have a general word for the media, for the public, that signifies this is the conditions by which companies on the internet is treated. I don't think the public cares what exact part of the topology is covered. Does that mean we should have the same rule everywhere? I don't think it should apply the same everywhere. But we should have a word that covers all of it, this is the way we talk about it.
I may repeat myself, this is a net neutrality, this is interconnection, this is backbone, sort of satisfying to people who like precision, but public is this is a question about routing protocols. Whether we have BGP, OSTP, people are like public is out of the discussion. These are incredibly important infrastructure discussion.
Your article about this is exactly right. There's a possibility that too narrow of a conception of this issue. Suppose the FCC passes extra strong protection for the last mile, and they're fighting the last war essentially. [The FCC will say], "we've got that solved," but [discrimination by ISPs] is moved to the middle mile. Net neutrality should refer broadly, otherwise you'll be in this ridiculous situation where you have very strong protections [that don't protect the open internet.]
AT&T says they have no interest in this fast lane stuff any more. i don't know if that's true of Comcast, but they're definitely interested in extracting money from interconnection. There's a real danger of narrowing the scope of what the FCC does.
Timothy B Lee You were involved in the Obama campaign in 2008, and worked with the Federal Trade Commission a couple of years. I think there was a lot of hope that Obama would bring a more tech-savvy point of view to Washington. Do you think it's turned out that way?
Tim Wu I went back this morning to look at some of the press coverage and writing in 2008. The hopes were I think incredibly high. This was going to be the tech presidency.
I would say January or February of this year, with healthcare.gov in chaos, NSA revelations out there, network neutrality struck down in the courts, and the Comcast merger announced, that we hit rock bottom from what we had hoped for in 2008. The revelations of just how much the NSA had done to undermine American privacy was devastating. The healthcare.gov website might seems like "who cares?" but it shows that the whole effort to change how the federal government does IT had failed.
There was a lot of talk of [appointing the first] CTO and new approach to tech. But we're still outsourcing to random guys who do the same crappy stuff they've always done. Most important domestic initiative of the presidency, healthcare.gov, was imperiled by same old contracting practices.
The defeat of network neutrality in the courts represented yet again the FCC cowed into not using its authority to regulate when it needed to. The announcement of the merger [between Comcast and Time Warner Cable] made it clear that with the great exception of [the Obama administration blocking the AT&T merger with T-Mobile], the consolidation of all the media and tech industries had proceeded apace.
There have also been a few major things that were not bad that could have been better. We got patent reform but no serious approach to patent trolls. There was no serious solution to over-patenting and the drag it puts on the American economy. Some decent merger policy, like blocking the AT&T/T-Mobile deal, some move on privacy, trying to protect privacy.
The contrast between relatively minor good-faith efforts we made at the FTC, and what the NSA was doing was like comparing a mountain climber moving uphill and a boulder moving downhill. I don't think you can blame any single one person, but it's ultimately one of the reasons we need to move some tech policy experimentation to the states. The big story is that entrenched interests have more or less managed to avoid serious reforms in some cases have taken things backwards.
Timothy B. Lee One area where regulators could have a lot of influence is with Bitcoin. Do you have any thoughts on how a Teachout-Wu administration would approach that issue?
Tim Wu I love Bitcoin, I love all that it represents. I'd like to see what the state can do to facilitate Bitcoin transactions.
Timothy B. Lee Are you going to be campaigning full time?
Tim Wu The primary is in September. I'm campaigning until September, full-time campaign. I've told the campaign I need to make space for my family. I have a new 9-month old daughter. So I don't mean 120 hours a week full time. I'll be campaigning every day, and I think I have a good chance of winning.
Timothy B. Lee How do you evaluate the record of the Cuomo Administration?
Tim Wu One of the things I've noticed when it comes to tech policy is that the tendency of Gov. Cuomo in particular is he likes to create schemes where he hands out favors. It's dangerous for government to have its policy be a system where the government hands out favors to one or another group.
A good example is Startup NY, which is one of Cuomo's programs to try to create growth. What they do is they end up just picking certain companies to get certain tax breaks. That's great for that company but there is a huge number of competitors who are comparatively disadvantaged. Cuomo has done way too much of handing out favors. As a politician it creates a lot of loyalty. But as a matter of policy, the government should focus on what I call square deal policies: set something out that raises all boats no matter what, then let competition decide who wins.
I'm running on a Progressive Party circa 1912 type of platform. I think the issues that concern New Yorkers are really quite similar to those 100 years ago: excessive private concentration and an unholy alliance with corrupt political systems. Theodore Roosevelt and Brandeis and Woodrow Wilson — they are the politicians I'm drawing inspiration from in this campaign. They showed the way, they were interested and basically concerned about excessive size and excessive private power over government. I'm trying to bring those kinds of issues to the fore. At some level, those are the issues that have become essential to peoples' lives. In some ways the Comcast merger is a great example of that. Talk to any consumer they feel almost certain that prices are going to keep rising, but no one in government thinks they can do anything about it.
Timothy B. Lee Your mentor Larry Lessig has recently been focusing on the corrupting influence of money in politics. What's the campaign's take on this issue?
Tim Wu I think the Progressives had it right. I was reading their platform from 1912. They said we need to fight the invisible government, the government behind the scenes, excessive private power married to corrupt government in an unholy alliance. I think those words describe our situation.
One of the main positions of the campaign is a call for the public financing that NY City uses for campaigns to be extended to the state. When Cuomo came to power on an anti-corruption mandate, he created something called the Moreland Commission, then abruptly abrogated it in the midst of its undertaking. We support public financing and the reinvigoration of the Moreland Commission to thoroughly investigate state corruption. That's been kind of the pattern in NY state. Every day you look at the newspaper and they're putting someone in jail. It's a decayed system in need of renovation.
Timothy B. Lee Six years ago, America elected a former law professor president of the United States. Some people have argued that Obama's idealistic language was hampered by his lack of political experience, leading him to rely too heavily on insiders who perpetuated the status quo. Do you think that's an accurate read of the situation, and if so how will the Teachout/Wu administration avoid falling into the same trap?
Tim Wu It's naive to expect that you are immune from everything. I think the problem for Obama wasn't actually lack of experience. I think in some ways what he lacked was real-world experience, experience outside of government. He's been either in politics or trying to be in politics or somehow wooing the establishment. He checked every box in the establishment. He owed a lot of favors and undrestood he would have to repay them all.
So I don't think it was his lack of experience, I think it was his sense of being indebted to the establishment. I don't feel any particular debt, I feel a lot of debt to my wife, but I don't feel that I was made by this person or that institution or that company. That's the problem. I think Obama often has felt, at his best moments, he's been fantastic, at his worse moments, he felt a sense of duty to follow the way things have been done forever.
We're trying to be the untouchables. It's naive to expect that you'll be immune to all pressures, but I'm strongly committed to a the kind of government that isn't about handing out individualized favors. I'm not looking for a job. I think this is a big problem in a lot of state politics, people always have their eye on the next job. I don't think of myself as a career politician. I already have the best job I could have, as a professor. I love my job, that makes a big difference.
Timothy B. Lee Can you comment on the campaign's fundraising? Won't that end up undermining your independence the same way it does for other candidates?
Tim Wu The goal of our campaign is to raise enough money so we can put on a credible challenge, it's not to put enough money to scare people out of the race. Cuomo's approach is to build up a war chest of $30 million. We want enough money to run a full campaign so the message is out there. We want to win on ideas, not on money.
You need a certain amount of money to run a campaign. We think individual contributions can raise that kind of money with no problem. But we're not dependent on money to win, we're running on ideas. We're running on a different kind of currency. We're acadmemics. For us ideas are the most valuable type of currency.