The Big Tech Companies That Love Net Neutrality Have a Ton to Gain From Its Demise

Tim Wu
Tim Wu

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Teachout/Wu for New York.

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to repeal its net neutrality rules this week, opening the doors for internet service providers to charge companies that can afford it for faster-lane access to users—a potentially significant blow to the open internet. In this week’s episode of their podcast If Then, Slate’s April Glaser and Will Oremus spoke with Tim Wu, the Columbia Law School professor who coined the term net neutrality. In this excerpt from their interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, they discuss why the large tech companies that feel philosophically aligned with net neutrality stand to gain so much once it is killed—and why, contra the arguments of net neutrality opponents in favor of less government oversight, the internet is already subject to extremely light regulation.

Tim Wu: It’s about to get a lot harder to take on Facebook, Google, even Netflix, any of these companies. It’s gotten way harder because they’re the ones with the money. I think we’ve just entered an ice age in a weird way of the media and internet markets, which we always assumed, “OK, when’s the next new thing? Who’s coming?” Well, the next new thing I guess is Snap, and how are they doing?

April Glaser: Right, right, and there is a question about whether we are fighting to defend an internet that is already consolidated. It seems that without net neutrality, it’s just going to further entrench the power of these incumbents, largely because they’re going to get to set the price for what priority access [to reach internet consumers] looks like. It probably will be out of bounds for most other people.

It’s always been the secret. Facebook, Google, all these companies, to their credit, have said, “Net neutrality is how we were born. It’s the most important to us,” but everyone also knows that it’s to some degree to their advantage to climb up the ladder and pull it up after them. They have mixed motives in this area. Their consumers want them to be pro, and actually their employees are pretty pro–net neutrality. I don’t think they would ever say, “This is in our interest. We’ll just do this and lock out our competitors.” It’s against their philosophy, but not their business interests.

April Glaser: Yes, they stand to gain from this.

Will Oremus: Yes, and that ties into another related topic that I wanted to ask you about. Obviously, everybody’s talking to you about net neutrality right now because of what’s going on this week, but you’re also very focused these days on antitrust issues, and that’s something we’ve talked a lot about on the show, as well.

One of the arguments in a recent commentary by Ben Thompson was that basically we should be using a “light touch” when it comes to regulation of ISPs. That draws on a tradition of the FCC trying to use a light touch when it comes to applying scrutiny to all kinds of mergers, I guess, but also to regulating the internet in particular, where the idea is that the landscape is always shifting. Today’s Facebook could be tomorrow’s MySpace, and so better to stay out of it and not try to anticipate what the future harm will be and pre-emptively regulate that.

Obviously, this light touch approach can make the argument that it’s given us a lot. There’s been a ton of innovation in the internet with the free for all. On the other hand, I think society is starting to grapple with some of the downsides of the sheer size and power of these companies, like Google and Facebook. I saw you testifying in a congressional briefing recently about these issues. How do you think about the size of these companies and what needs to be done now? I think you have forthcoming book about this topic too, right?

I do. That’s right. Thanks for letting me mention that. The working title, at least for now, is The Curse of Bigness Revisited. I picked up on Louis Brandeis’ legacy and his vision of what the American economy should be like. He makes a point I think that’s hard to contest that small companies grow. When the economy gets too big and concentrated, the industries stagnate. They need bursts of new activity to get going, so yes, I’m obsessed with antitrust. I’m a believer in occasional big breakups to leaven what otherwise can become very solidified. I think all that’s having a big comeback. Can I make just one thing about that light touch? Net neutrality was the light touch. That’s what’s crazy about it.

April Glaser: Yes, it was already a light touch.

It was already a light touch. In fact, I think the reason Michel Powell, sorry, the Republican FCC chairman who put in place net neutrality rules really, he was like, “Well, this is a light touch. It’s not as intense.”