The Master Switch and the Centralization of the Internet

March 23, 2011 at 7:51 pm Leave a comment

One of the most important trends in the recent evolution of the Internet has been the move towards centralization and closed platforms. I’m interested in this question in the context of social networks—analyzing why no decentralized social network has yet taken off, whether one ever will, and whether a decentralized social network is important for society and freedom. With this in mind, I read Tim Wu’s ‘The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires,’ a powerful book that will influence policy debates for some time to come. My review follows.

‘The Master Switch’ has two parts. The former discusses the history of communications media through the twentieth century and shows evidence for “The Cycle” of open innovation → closed monopoly → disruption. The latter, shorter part is more speculative and argues that the same fate will befall the Internet, absent aggressive intervention.

The first part of the book is unequivocally excellent. There are so many grand as well as little historical facts buried in there. Wu makes his case well for the claim that radio, telephony, film and television have all taken much the same path.

A point that Wu drives home repeatedly is that while free speech in law is always spoken of in the context of Governmental controls, the private entities that own or control the medium of speech play a far bigger role in practice in determining how much freedom of speech society has. In the U.S., we are used to regulating Governmental barriers to speech but not private ones, and a lot of the book is about exposing the problems with this approach.

An interesting angle the author takes is to look at the motives of the key men that shaped the “information industries” of the past. This is apposite given the enormous impact on history that each of these few has had, and I felt it added a layer of understanding compared to a purely factual account.

But let’s cut to the chase—the argument about the future of the Internet. I wasn’t sure whether I agreed or disagreed until I realized Wu is making two different claims, a weak one and a strong one, and does not separate them clearly.

The weak claim is simply that an open Internet is better for society in the long run than a closed one. Open and closed here are best understood via the exemplars of Google and Apple. Wu argues this reasonably well, and in any case not much argument is needed—most of us would consider it obvious on the face of it.

The strong claim, and the one that is used to justify intervention, is that a closed Internet will have such crippling effects on innovation and such chilling effects on free speech that it is our collective duty to learn from history and do something before the dystopian future materializes. This is where I think Wu’s argument falls short.

To begin with, Wu doesn’t have a clear reason why the Internet will follow the previous technologies, except, almost literally, “we can’t be sure it won’t.” He overstates the similarities and downplays the differences.

Second, I believe Wu doesn’t fully understand technology and the Internet in some key ways. Bizarrely, he appears to believe that the Internet’s predilection for decentralization is due to our cultural values rather than technological and business realities prevalent when these systems were designed.

Finally, Wu has a tendency to see things in black and white, in terms of good and evil, which I find annoying, and more importantly, oversimplified. He quotes this sentence approvingly: “Once we replace the personal computer with a closed-platform device such as the iPad, we replace freedom, choice and the free market with oppression, censorship and monopoly.” He also says that “no one denies that the future will be decided by one of two visions,” in the context of iOS and Android. It isn’t clear why he thinks they can’t coexist the way the Mac and PC have.

Regardless of whether one buys his dystopian prognostications, Wu’s paradigm of the “separations principle” is to be taken seriously. It is far broader than even net neutrality. There appear to be two key pillars: a separation of platforms and content, and limits on corporate structures to faciliate this—mainly vertical, but also horizontal, such as in the case of media conglomerates.

Interestingly, Wu wants the separations principle to be more of a societal-corporate norm than Governmental regulation. That said, he does call for more powers to the FCC, which is odd given that he is clear on the role that State actors have played in the past in enabling and condoning monopoly abuse:

Again and again in the histories I have recounted, the state has shown itself an inferior arbiter of what is good for the information industries. The federal government’s role in radio and television from the 1920s to the 1960s, for instance, was nothing short of a disgrace. In the service of chain broadcasting, it wrecked a vibrant, decentralized AM marketplace. At the behest of the ascendant radio industry, it blocked the arrival and prospects of FM radio, and then it put the brakes on television, reserving it for the NBC-CBS duopoly. Finally, from the 1950s through the 1960s, it did everything in its power to prevent cable television from challenging the primacy of the networks.

To his credit, Wu does seem to be aware of the contradiction, and appears to argue that the Government agencies can learn and change. It does seem like a stretch, however.

In summary, Wu deserves major kudos both for the historical treatment and for some very astute insights about the Internet. For example, in the last 2-3 years, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter have all made dramatic moves toward centralization, control and closed platforms. Wu seems to have foreseen this general trend more clearly than most techies did.[1] The book does have drawbacks, and I don’t agree that the Internet will go the way of past monopolies without intervention. It should be very interesting to see what moves Wu will make now that he will be advising the FTC.

[1] While the book was published in late 2010, I assume that Wu’s ideas are much older.

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I'm an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

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