Who Controls the Master Switch

[This is a reading reflection for HIST946: Digital Humanities for Prof. William G. Thomas during the Fall 2011 semester. This week’s readings was Tim Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. You can find related posts here.]

Mark Twain allegedly once said that the past doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Tim Wu offers a warning to the public: if you expect the web to stay open, you must be eternally vigilant. He traces the information industry through what he calls the “Cycle,” alternating periods where companies drift from open and closed. He sees the theme recurring throughout the history of information media, starting with telephone and continuing through radio, television, film, and the Internet. All forms of information distribution are susceptible to the cycle because they depend on networks. Once a company builds a network or begins to control one, monopoly is surely to follow. As Lawrence Lessig saw the demise of the open web in its commercialization, Wu frames it in a historical cycle of open information industries inevitably becoming closed.

The Internet holds new promise to many technopundits and wonks since data is not routed through a central switchboard, monopoly, or cartel (Wu’s “master switch”). But he points to companies like Google (effectively the master switch where people engage with the web) who could run amok on its competitors and eliminate them from search results. Apple devices can only run Apple-approved apps and be repaired only by approved vendors. Cable companies, which own the physical infrastructure used to connect to the Internet, could control what people have access to once they are online. Just as problematic are cell phone companies who have flirted with an Internet architecture that would offer tiered pricing for quality service.

Wu seeks to counter what he sees as “the danger of private power” and “the Lockean sanctification of private property” (p. 300). Information industries, he argues, are more important than all others because they control the very networks that information uses. He likewise argues that traditional forms of regulation are inadequate and, thus, new rules should be applied to the information sector. His plan is what he calls “a Separation Principle for the information economy,” an approach to private marketplace regulation that seeks to separate “those who develop information, those who own the network infrastructure on which it travels, and those who control the tools or venues of access.” In other words, Wu argues for strict boundaries of separation between 1) information creators, 2) information distributors, and 3) hardware creators. Just as important to his plan is for government to keep its distance and “not intervene in the market to favor any technology, network monopoly, or integration.”

His plan, however, seems like a nightmare for the information industry. Such a regulatory plan would require constant monitoring to ensure the walls of separation were not breeched. Thus, it would be difficult for government to keep itself at arm’s length in the information economy if it takes on the role of policing separation. Trusting government with the Internet seems especially concerning lately. The Obama Administration has proposed legislation that would increase government’s ability to wiretap email and downloads or monitor Internet telephony and searches. This week Congress is holding hearings on the ill-considered Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP Act, two pieces of legislation that lack clear guidelines on infringement behavior, offer overly simplistic solutions to very complex problems, and are downright hostile to freedom of expression. The very government Wu would like us to trust may be the very one that ruins everything. Furthermore, the plan would cripple the information industry. Under his plan, would Microsoft, traditionally a creator of software and an operating system, be unable to move into the music device market or gaming console market? Microsoft could only focus on information creation or hardware creation, but not both. The same could be said for Google (search only, no phones), Apple (hardware only, no iOS or App Store), Amazon (distribution only, no Kindle hardware), or any other variety of technology industries today that straddle the separation buckets Wu attempts to outline. His warnings of a closed system should be heeded, but his solutions leave much to be desired.