The Sunday Review: The Master Switch, by Tim Wu

by Anthony Painter

The information and communication revolutions of the last few decades have given us access to more content than we could possibly have dreamed of. Imagine what it would have taken to establish Labour Uncut just twenty years ago. You’d need an investor, an office, professional writers, paying subscribers, access to a printing press, and some form of retail and/or mail order distribution. The chances that it would exist are slight.

Labour Uncut is not alone- there is a huge diversity of political blogs and websites providing access to an enormous range of voices. That’s before Twitter or Facebook are even factored in. This is a golden age of access to content diversity. We are fortunate because if the history of the information industries is anything to go buy, these periods of openness are relatively short-lived. The age of the open internet is precious.

It is not the only time such a diverse range of content has been publicly accessible. In the US in the 1920s, radio was a cacophony. It was limited by frequency and amplitude in a way that the internet in the broadband age isn’t but it bears a striking similarity to the internet of today. Local enthusiasts would broadcast their take on the world, local gossip, critical community information; it was a true people’s medium. Alongside that there were the early radio networks: Radio Corporation of America and AT&T’s National Broadcasting Service who merged in 1926 to become what we know today as NBC. Thus, radio of the mid-1920s was a blend of national commercial might and enthusiastic amateurism- much like today’s internet.

Could the two sit together in perpetuity? Of course not. And the big guy won. It wasn’t even a fair fight. The Federal Radio Commission stepped in and, in the interests of clearing the airwaves to enable a higher quality service, all but killed amateur radio. The master switch had been flipped. In Nazi Germany, Goebbels centralised radio in the interests of the creation of bringing ‘a nation together.’ The US did it in the interests of corporate power and customer service. In each case, however, they chose a closed over an open form of information provision and carriage.
Tim Wu’s magisterial history of information, communication, broadcast and entertainment empires in US history, The Master Switch, challenges us to think about the importance of open v closed. Open does not equal free market and closed does not equal state. In fact, coercion comes in both public and private forms:

“…the free market can also lead to situations of reduced freedom. Markets are born free, yet no sooner are they born than some would-be emperor is forging chains…if we believe in liberty, it must be freedom from both public and private coercion.”

Wu’s solution is what he terms the ‘separation principle.’ He warns us that the takeover of radio by big business backed by the federal government- public and private coercion in stereo- will not be the last such imposition of a closed system over an open system. There will always be some argument for ‘consumer gratification’ that justifies such interventions of corporate power- a reliable, universal phone service; radio shows supported by advertising; big-budget movies; or a ‘dazzling device that seems to put the world in the palm of you hand’ (here’s looking in your direction, Apple.)

No single entity should gain disproportionate power over an information technology. At the clearest level, Wu warns that carriage (means of delivery) and content should be separated- this is traditionally called the principle of ‘common carriage’ or ‘net neutrality’ in the internet environment. When content and carriage is combined- as it is in the case of, for example, Sky TV and will be, though with very tough safeguards, following the takeover of NBC-Universal by US cable giant, Comcast- there is a temptation to push proprietary content. It is not just for competitive reasons that this should concern us as the history of the radio industry shows. It is because eventually access to the rich, messy content that is characteristic of an open network may become heavily restricted or prevented altogether.

Anyone who owns an iphone or ipad will see this in action. Any video delivered via the video software, Flash, can not be viewed. Why should Apple choose to intervene in this way? The reasons are not important. The fact that it can is the concern. There are plenty of reasons to block content. What if the mass civil disobedience seen on Twitter with regard to super-injunctions become a reason for the state to intervene in the operation of that service or security concerns meant the state decided to mandate a closed version of the internet? This would all sound paranoid if governments and private monopolies hadn’t conspired in this way in the past for whatever reason: security, favouritism, morality, quality of service, illegality, or even more nefarious reasons.

Does this really matter to anyone other than internet obsessives? Yes, it does. If there is a slight weakness to this superb and passionate book, it’s that the case for why these issues matter to all could be made more crisply. Culturally, economically, and democratically we rely on open and free access to information. We rely on a fair means of exchanging that information- other than in very tightly defined circumstances where people and society are under genuine threat. To have that denied for whatever private or state reason is a shift towards a closed and controlled society. We will be less free and our lives will be less rich.

This argument is not about left or right. It is about open or closed. The more open, the more free. That is the basic case that is made by Wu. It is a powerful case. And one which could meet coercive resistance. And Labour Uncut is a cracking read made possible by the window of openness in which we now find ourselves. It is worth keeping that window wide open.

Anthony Painter is an author and critic.


One Response to “The Sunday Review: The Master Switch, by Tim Wu”

  1. Paul Evans says:

    Good post – and from a policy-making point of view, the demand for seperation of content making and delivery is an important one both in economic terms, in terms of the support of cultural and intellectual diversity, and – in the short term – for pragmatic purposes.

    The reason that News Corp value their ability to get involved in court politics so highly is that…

    a) It would be a huge disadvantage to them if these two things were seperated – they’ll stay there as long as they can to ensure such a move is resisted
    b) As long as it’s there, it gives them a huge incentive to push governments around.

    The idea of funding content providers from hardware levies of one kind or another – either an alternative to licence fees, subscriptions or pay-as-you-go – is an accepted norm in almost every EU country. But not in the US or the UK.

    If you’ll forgive me a link to my own site, I’ve outlined this in more detail here:

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