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CMD & CTRL: Tim Wu

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We know that technology carries with it all manner of problems, but one of our biggest pickles tends to slip right by us.

We’re already un-free.

So argues Tim Wu, law professor, author of The Master Switch and recent appointee to the Federal Trade Commission. In the face of corporate control of the Internet, Wu’s concept of “network neutrality” – the notion that networks should be equally accessible by the people using them, and that the people who own the pipes can’t place restrictions on access to it or on the content that passes through it – has sparked a brewing war over the future of communication.

It’s tempting to think of the Internet as an open marketplace of ideas, a place where any link has as much a chance of success as any other. But the Web is only a modern update on the information conduits before it. Be it the signal networks of the telegraph or the radio, the telephone or the television, or the physical networks of skyways or railways or shipping routes or roads, or the linguistic networks of words and grammar, no medium arrives ex nihilo¬, unstructured or unbiased. When the variants of the modern Internet were born, they were more like public utlitities, established by funding from the military (ARPANET) or the academy (CERN’s World Wide Web). It’s tempting to wonder about where we might be today if Mark Zuckerberg had invented the Web.

But increasingly it doesn’t take much imagination: Facebook is already the primary layer of the internet for millions of young and persuadable web users. Chances are they’re accessing it through a smartphone outfitted with a proprietary operating system, like the iPhone: another layer. In the supposedly free marketplace of ideas of the Internet, the invisible hand has been replaced by an upper hand. Whose is it, and what does it want?

It would be foolish to assume that anything is unbiased, that anyone can operate without some conflict of interest. The problem now, as our tools become ever more essential to everyday life, ever more pervasive, and ever more complex, is being able to even detect those biases.

But here’s another conundrum to punch into your question-answering sites: do we even care about this? As long as we’re able to make our cheap phone calls, send our free emails, watch our free videos, and get our free content, why should we bother? Why regulate for “network neutrality” if the system works fine the way it is?

The question is hard to answer because we don’t have a way of calculating how much “free” really costs. And, as Wu argues, as much as we like to talk about freedom, we also really like other things like convenience, speed, and comfort. Our technologies and the companies that make them are really good at providing the latter. It’s not so clear, he says, where the former fits in.

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