It's huge news today that President Obama has come out in support of strong net neutrality and open internet rules based on Title II of the Telecommunications Act. But while the basics are simple, there's lots to understand underneath the surface, so I called Tim Wu, the man who originally coined the phrase "net neutrality," for some quick insight. Here's our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
So what's your first take on the news?
"It takes someone who's not deep in the game to say this is the obvious thing"
Well, the President has gone all in. He's taken a look at it and said, "Why are we doing these half measures?" Why not just do the most obvious thing, which is a bright line net neutrality rule using the strongest authority the agency has? I don't understand why we would do anything else."
I think it was bold and courageous and, in some ways, just obvious. But sometimes, it takes someone who's not deeply embedded in the game to say this is the obvious thing to do to.
So will the FCC actually do it?
Do I think the FCC will do what he says? The ball's in their court in a way it hasn't been before. I certainly think it stands a chance. He's the boss; he's the head of the Democratic Party and the President of the United States. His ideas hold a lot of weight. Obviously, [the FCC] is not going to just ignore this; they have more political cover to do it. I don't think it's the Chairman's preference, but knowing that he'll have the White House... They may find themselves very isolated. Sometimes, you have to pick a side or get run over.
"Sometimes, you have to pick a side or get run over"
What's the point of being in the middle if you're the FCC at this point, unless you really think it's better in some way? If they stay in the middle, they're kind of naked right now — there's no one there with them. It's not like Congress is gonna help out. Congress is going to be against any version of the net neutrality rule, the tech companies are against any compromise. Sometimes, the middle can end up being a very dangerous place.
The only concern I have is that there's too much chaos. My main concern is delay.
Won't it take a long time to open a new process and go through it all?
They already have a rulemaking process, though. If they want, they could do this in December... though, it's getting tight; they have to circulate something by November 19th. The odds of delay have more than doubled, which could mean that Comcast gets more tied up in this whole story.
Is Comcast cruising towards approval [of the Time Warner purchase] at this point?
I wouldn't say that's so. I just think that Comcast becomes part of the story since the Comcast merger will happen in January, too. Comcast is in more trouble than you think.
"Comcast is in more trouble than you think."
I think Comcast has made net neutrality feel a little more visceral and a little less hypothetical. The truth is that there have been way more comments on net neutrality after the Comcast merger. We live in a world of both cultural and political subcultures, and when people get fired up about things, they get fired up, and net neutrality is one of those issues. I would not underestimate the strength of the interest in net neutrality and that people care about it.
The fact that Barack Obama took the time to do the video and the proposed rules attracted four million comments is, in some ways, a coming-of-age for the issue.
This is really just the same plan Genachowski proposed in 2010, right? Go to Title II, forebear what you don't like, get it done. Why did it fail then?
Yep, that's right, that's what it is. Genachowski's failure was not a failure of law, it was a failure of will. They were unable to pull the trigger, so they went for the compromise...and then that blew up. This time, Obama's saying, "Just pull the trigger."
"The President has done his job."
If there's somebody who's interested in this, what are the next steps?
I guess, first of all, commend the White House and do everything you can to put pressure on the FCC to listen to the President if you care about this issue. Tell them to listen to the President. I agree 100 percent with everything the President said, and I'm a net neutrality advocate. There's no hole in the plan — this is net neutrality.
The President has done his job. Now it's time for the Commission to do its job.