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We Talked to Tim Wu About Net Neutrality and Taking on Corrupt Politicians

It's not very often that you get to vote for the smartest person in the room, but Tim Wu is making it easy on New Yorkers.
July 23, 2014, 3:00pm

New York lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Tim Wu on the stump. Photo by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid via Flickr 

It's not very often that you get to vote for the smartest person in the room. But Tim Wu, the Columbia Law School professor who came up with the concept of net neutrality to protect a free and open internet, is making it pretty easy. He's running for the Democratic Party's nomination to be the next lieutenant governor of New York in a September primary against former Congresswoman Kathy Hochul. A bank lobbyist, Hochul is the hand-picked favorite of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who's currently being investigated by federal prosecutors for corruption. Hochul also stands out as a rabid foe of illegal immigration who raised hell when the state considered issuing drivers licenses to undocumented workers a few years ago.

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By challenging Cuomo and his stooge's conservative views, Wu hopes to steer his party out of the thrall of big money on issues like financial and telecom regulation—and maybe even back in the direction of its populist roots. Unlike American presidents and their powerless vice presidents, New York's governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, even if they run as a team. Although his awesomely-named running mate Zephyr Teachout doesn’t stand much of a chance of dethroning the $33 million (and counting) incumbent in the governor's mansion, Wu has a pretty decent shot at edging Cuomo's lackey, Hochul.

But Wu isn't known for his politics so much as his principles. He coined net neutrality in 2003 to push back against the growing stranglehold of massive cable companies on every piece of information we consume, arguing that all data should be treated equally by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). He fears that concentrated wealth imperils America’s future just as it did under the robber barons of the early 20th century—except the corporate honchos living it up in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street aren’t even paying for hellish manufacturing jobs anymore.

We called Wu up on his birthday (he was hanging by a lake) to find out what it's like to suddenly dive into the cesspool that is America's electoral system. We picked his brain about butting heads with the Democratic Party's leaders and the future of net neutrality. Here's what he had to say.

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VICE: I don't think anyone would have used the term politician to describe you just a few weeks ago. What's the transition been like from the academic world to this one, where it's all about convincing people to vote for you?
Professor Tim Wu: One of the reasons I ran is that I feel that politics are too important to leave to career politicians. I think people who have deep feelings about policy and thoughts about political theory or where the country should be going should also run for office. I think that it's become kind of a shame that the circle of people who we imagine running for office has been somewhat narrowed.

You haven't sold your soul just yet, have you?
It's both exciting and disheartening at the same time. I kinda knew this just from reading magazines and newspapers and coverage, but it's disheartening how much focus there is on resources and money and how much money you have and who's going to raise from who. When you're in it, you realize just how much is based on resources as opposed to ideas. I think in academia or even in policy, we're more used to saying, "OK—whose idea is better?" rather than who has the biggest warchest. And I knew it wasn't like that, but to actually see money being such a central question—I wasn't totally ready for that. It reminded me of when you get too much into the movie industry and no one talks about movies anymore, they just talk about the weekend grosses. Nobody is talking about anything other than how much can they raise.

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Anything surprise you about life on the campaign trail so far?
The thing I really like about it is that people come out everywhere to express support. That's sort of surprising. Even though I just said that the focus on resources is a little disheartening, it has given me more faith in democracy in the sense that I feel like a lot of people care. Often you get the impression that nobody cares. We just launched our campaign, we're not political veterans. But a lot of people are like, "What can I do to help?" That's given me a little faith. It's amazing how many people come out of the woodwork and pay attention. I think the idea that Americans are apathetic is overstated.

I mean, they watch football, but I like football, too, so that's not a big problem. The idea that there's too much concentrated economic power is something people are interested in, too. Or the idea that the internet is threatened—look, it's not like everyone's interested, but there were a million comments [on the FCC's proposal to gut net neutrality]. That's one in 300 Americans writing about a pretty obscure telecom regulation. That's kind of amazing.

Is it safe to say you and Zephyr Teachout will be on the Democratic primary ballot in September? I mean, you've announced you submitted 45,000 nominating petitions, which sounds like a lot.
Oh, we're on the ballot for sure. If they challenge us, that bleeds money and we'll have to raise more money, but it looks bad for them [to challenge]. Occasionally there are invalid signatures, which is why we had that huge number, but the number sort of speaks for itself.

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What's your sense of the forces arrayed against you, ranging from Bill and Hillary Clinton to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio to Wall Street megadonors?
I like a fight. I like facing a challenging opponent. You don't want to run for something, at least in my mind, where there's no fight. If I wanted to do that I would run for the head of our curriculum committee at Columbia or something. I'm a startup guy. I'm from the tech sector. There's nothing a startup guy, a tech guy, likes better than a big but vulnerable opponent. The disadvantage we have is resources, but the advantage that we have, like any startup, is that we're not institutionally committed. We don't have to pussyfoot around, we can say what we want. And actually, the most important thing is we're not hamstrung by donors. I think Cuomo, given the amount of money he gets from certain sectors of the economy, is severely limited in what he can do and say.

That's where the advantage is for us. We're faster, we're more flexible, we're not corrupted. And I'm also not bound by aspirations for offices beyond this. I'm not watching everything I say thinking about a presidential campaign or Senate campaign or something. I can just go for it. Those are huge advantages in a political fight. I can just go exactly where the people are. When the Tea Party wins a primary, it's because they go to where their voters are.

You've used the word startup a few times, embracing the mantle of tech culture and Silicon Valley. Disruption is the latest buzzword, but a controversial one. What does it mean to you? And what do you make of criticisms of Silicon Valley's negative impact on the poor and minorities—in the San Francisco Bay area, for example—and tech companies' tendency to oppose regulation
I believe there are incremental and disruptive innovations. Overall, I think the disruptive innovations are by far the most important and are ultimately the hallmark of a healthy and dynamic society. You see this in economic systems and political systems. There are incremental politicians who tinker at the edges, and, now and then, you have sharper changes that are more systematic. Ronald Reagan is a great example. FDR is a great example. Woodrow Wilson is another. You never know until later whether it really was disruptive or not.

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That doesn't mean these huge disruptions don't have negative side-effects. They do. Part of a healthy process is allowing the disruptive changes to happen and then being sensitive to the fact that they may do disproportionate harm in some ways. Do I think, for example, that Air BnB and Uber—as they disrupt the hospitality and taxi industry—might cause hardship? Yes. But I think they also create convenience and value. So on the one hand I think they should be allowed and I think their disruption is important. Then we figure out how bad are things and we use the surplus from the value to somewhat remedy the negatives. Sometimes old businesses will lose—how's the typewriter industry doing? It's gone. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have any rules for new industries.

Did you draw any inspiration from the populist insurgency on the right that took out House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia last month? He was seen as being nearly as untouchable as Cuomo right up until election day, no?
I think the Tea Party is a reaction to crony capitalism and a sense that the system is rigged against working people—that there's too much inequality in the country. It makes one enormous error, which is that it tries to blame government for everything rather than understanding that controlling concentrated private power without government is really not easy. To the degree that they're on a constant attack against government—even on something like net neutrality—they'll find that they just empower exactly what they're fighting against.

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That's what scares me about the Tea Party: They're concerned about crony capitalism, but they're fighting a fight when they try to destroy government that will make capitalism ever more crony and rigged against the average person.

One lesson it has for our race is that no one is invulnerable. Cantor's big problem was he was too close to his donors, too close to big business, so he couldn't actually put forth positions his constituents cared about. I think it's a warning for anyone who relies on donations as their power—the warchest model. It is inherently vulnerable. Corporations can give money but they don't vote, so you're always vulnerable to the franchise.

Do people really care abut political corruption from what you can tell so far?
I think what Larry Lessig says is right. I think they care about it, but feel hopeless. Something like [New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's] Bridgegate [scandal] shows when you go too far [with corruption], how much people do care about it. But leaders don't have patience for complicated facts. I know of things Chris Christie has done that are probably worse, but they're not as vivid. Something like Bridgegate makes it a lot clearer to people.

It seems like the challenge for you and Zephyr taking on Cuomo is that there's no smoking gun.
[Former President Richard] Nixon looked invulnerable until Watergate, right? Christie looked invulnerable until Bridegate. I don't have any magical power, but Cuomo has certainly been throwing his weight around. There's the shutdown of the Moreland Commission—as you know there's been subpoenas issued [While not a smoking gun per se, a massive New York Times investigation released Wednesday sheds new light on Cuomo's meddling with his own anti-corruption panel.] And there are stories about his side of the Port Authority that are suspicious, but no one has really managed to get. It's like Christie and Nixon: They were floating around and everybody thought they were clean as whistles until the moment came. There's a chance something serious will happen.

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But until then part of the problem is that a lot of what Governor Cuomo is doing is shady but legal, right? We're seeing that with these Supreme Court decisions where the only thing that is explicitly banned is exchanging cash for votes.
So the real problem in the American system and New York State is we've taken a lot of stuff that would've been called corruption in other periods and legalized it or made it allowable. So you don't need to take illegal bribes because you can do everything in sort of a legal way—give enormous campaign donations—and all of this is legal. I think it's the great challenge of our political system, is a shift away from outright corruption. But you know what's crazy is that there is old-fashioned—here's a bag of money!—corruption in New York, too. But we have a problem moving from individualized oldschool corruption to systematic corruption where you just have a system that depends on the exchange of money for favors but everything is perfectly legal. It's the greatest challenge of our time. It's hard to fight because it's a cloud or fog as opposed to a single monster or single guy with a bag of money on his desk.

What does net neutrality mean to you now, and why is it so important in 2014?
Net neutrality is the principle that we should prevent the internet from becoming cable television. One of the things I think appeals to people about the internet in general is that it gives smaller players—relatively regular people—a shot on a footing where they're not completely equal to the big guys but are roughly equal. Like, a really successful blogger can reach an audience. It's not guaranteed, of course. A startup newspaper with listicles can become a serious news organization. People kinda like that because everything else feels like a rigged game. Hey, it's not like I'm saying it's easy—everyone has put a video up on the internet that goes nowhere.

Net neutrality actually equips much smaller companies and individuals with the advantages larger companies have. They don't get a corporate jet, but if you use the tools on the internet, you can put together something that has a fighting chance. We're like that in this campaign—we're dependent on the internet. Without it, a campaign like mine and Zephyr's doesn't exist. We can always get it out there on the internet, and if it gets big enough, the regular media feels like it has to cover it.

Net neutrality has a lot to do with my own candidacy. I'm kind of testing the principle: How far can the internet take you?

For more on Tim Wu, check out Motherboard's video interview released back in March 2011.

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.