What can the next president do to right the wrongs of the Bush Administration when it comes to technology policy? Columbia University law professor and co-author of Who Controls the InternetTim Wu makes his recommendations regarding broadband, the FCC and government transparency through technology.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Come January, the next president of the United States will have a desk full of issues, including some of ours – that is, media issues. Tim Wu is a professor of law at Columbia University and co-author of the book Who Controls the Internet? He recently wrote a piece for Slate, laying out what should be the next president's technology priorities, including improving high-speed broadband Internet access, sorting out the FCC and using technology to reduce government secrecy.
The candidates already are pondering some of these things. John McCain was quoted as saying, "When you control the pipe, you should be able to get profit from your investment." Not exactly what net neutrality activists want to hear.
On the issue of broadband, a Hillary Clinton campaign press release states that she will, quote, "provide tax incentives to encourage broadband development in underserved areas." That sounds promising. And Barack Obama, who, by the way, is being advised by Tim Wu, says he will, quote, "set a goal of ensuring that every American has broadband access no matter where you live, no matter how much money you have or don't have." TIM WU: Right now, no one's fully in charge of anything. Congress kind of thinks it's a little bit to do with them, because it's a form of infrastructure. The White House is in charge of science policy. The FCC is in charge of communications.
But really, there's no single entity who's making sure that America leads in this area. And the broadband czar would just be the single person whose job it was to make America the top broadband country in the world. BOB GARFIELD: What keeps it from being that right now? TIM WU: There's a bunch of things. There's a mixture of the private industry not necessarily wanting to invest. There's no clear regulatory structure as to what happens once you invest. There's very little government funding for investments. We fund all kinds of infrastructure, like roads and swimming pools, but almost nothing for the Internet. And so it's kind of caught in some morass of Washington confusion. BOB GARFIELD: According to a World Economic Forum Report that was just released on Wednesday, the U.S. ranks fourth in the world in Internet infrastructure. Are we really lagging so far behind? TIM WU: Depending on what listings you believe, America is either, you know, fourth or seventeenth or twenty-something-th in the world. The point is, usually the United States has led the world in communications infrastructure, and right now everyone's complaint is that things just are not happening because there's a big knot in the world of broadband. BOB GARFIELD: Why is broadband so important? TIM WU: Broadband policy is becoming all of media policy and all of communications policy. In an age where almost every form of entertainment and news that we think about today is carried over a broadband connection- BOB GARFIELD: Not to mention commerce and politics. TIM WU: Right – commerce, politics – these are all becoming broadband policy. How the broadband Internet is regulated and what kind of capacity it has in the first place is now going to become the obsession of Hollywood, of Washington, New York, the whole country, as we discover what 21st century media policy looks like. BOB GARFIELD: Concerning the FCC, you suggest completely rethinking how these commissioners are named. What is the problem, as you see it, with the FCC such as it's constituted now? TIM WU: You know, America has the best tech industries in the world, and we sort of choose among a bunch of D.C. insiders as to who's going to be basically the coach of that team. I said in the piece it's a bit like choosing coaches for the Olympic team from Nike's lawyers. BOB GARFIELD: Foxes guarding the henhouse? TIM WU: You know, it is true that many people come in with industry loyalty. When you look at the breadth of talent in this country in technology and technology policy, we're picking from a very strange and small pool right now. BOB GARFIELD: You suggest that the next administration should ensure greater governmental transparency using technology. Now, assuming the new president, you know, wants the government to be more transparent than the present one, what are the ways that technology can help advance that goal? TIM WU: You know, this administration, when it came to opaqueness, was somewhere between Brezhnev and Dracula. [BOB LAUGHS] And, you know, when people talk about real transparency, every candidate talks about it. What that really means is information technology. It means being able to search for things – to, for example, find where and what Congressional hearing, who said what, in a way that doesn't require hundreds or thousands of dollars.
We have seen huge reductions in the price of getting information in a lot of areas, thanks to search engines and other technologies. And the question is how well can those technologies be used for government?
This administration has just had the policy that everything is secret, and, you know, it's created a giant wall. And I think the only thing that can break down that wall is better information technology. BOB GARFIELD: Now, considering you wrote a book called Who Controls the Internet? - I'm kind of surprised you really didn't get into issues like net neutrality and privacy and security in your Slate piece. Do you have any recommendations for the next president on those issues? TIM WU: The point of the Slate piece was to focus quickly on what the president can do to make things better as soon as possible. But over the long term, I think it's extremely important that the president and the FCC and Congress stay on top of net neutrality, reverse the horrendous infringements on American privacy that were the trademark of the last administration and just start to think seriously about what privacy means in this age. BOB GARFIELD: Now, I know in the Slate piece you were advising whoever the next president might be, but you have a clear choice. You're an advisor to Barack Obama. Is there some politicking going on here? TIM WU: I think these are big questions for everyone. And these are just what I think should be done, and they don't reflect the views of the Obama campaign. BOB GARFIELD: Well Tim, once again, thank you so much for joining us. TIM WU: It's always a pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Tim Wu is a professor of a law at Columbia University and co-author of Who Controls the Internet?