Rewired: Tim Wu’s Fantastic Foray

What happens when a leading tech theorist absorbs the rays of electoral politics?

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2014
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Photograph by Mike Groll / AP

I think that we need regular people to go into politics. By regular I mean people who are not creatures.

- Tim Wu, August 14, 2014

JUNE 16. Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor, stood at a wooden lectern inside the state capitol in Albany. He was about to embark on a whole new trip. He hadn’t really planned it. A month earlier, when he’d written, in the New Yorker, of “the coming war,” he certainly hadn’t been talking about this. Rather, he was referring to an issue he knew better than anyone, and whose name he’d invented: net neutrality.

It was the principle to which Wu had devoted much of his career: that Internet service providers should treat all traffic equally (no high-speed lanes for big companies, no monopolistic control of the wires, no blocking of legal content). But now the vision of an open Internet was imperiled: on May 15, the Federal Communications Commission proposed new Internet rules whose language, according to Wu, would permit broadband carriers like Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner to charge websites “a payola payment to reach customers through a ‘fast lane.’” Such a system, Wu contended, would, among other things, hurt small businesses, reduce the freedom of consumers, and discourage innovation. The FCC was accepting public comments on the proposed rules until September 15.

Yet Wu, dressed this June day in a white shirt, black jacket, and striped tie, was preparing for a different fight. The woman beside him at the lectern, wearing a lemon-chiffon skirt and jacket and a pearl necklace, was Zephyr Teachout, a Yale-educated Fordham University law professor. Teachout, virtually unknown in New York politics, had come to Albany to announce her bid to unseat Governor Andrew Cuomo in a Democratic primary to be held on September 9. Wu was her running mate, vying to become lieutenant governor, or “LG,” a largely ceremonial position that Wu wanted to transform into one of public advocacy.

“If New York gives us a chance to govern,” Teachout told the group of reporters on hand, “we will build an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected.” The state, she said, was “more unequal than at any time since the plutocratic era,” reflecting a “politics of the few, by the few.”

Wu, whose governmental experience included a post as senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission in 2011, where he worked on tech-sector antitrust and privacy issues, had, just a week earlier, envisioned a different summer for himself. He would go sailing and fishing. He would work on net neutrality, of course, and also on his new book, called Your Attention, Please, whose premise was that human attention is the twenty-first century’s most important resource. Wu had earned a $200,000 advance, an indication of the success of his 2010 book, The Master Switch, a revelatory history of tech monopolies that showed how communication innovations pass from periods of openness and decentralization to periods of consolidation and control — what Wu called “the Cycle,” and whose patterns he saw in politics.

Now those summer plans would be shelved. The book would go to the back burner. Net neutrality would have to share elbow room with New York State education, immigration, the environment, and a particular cable merger. There would be no sailing. And the fish in the Hudson could breathe easier: Wu had others to fry. Though he and Teachout faced monumental odds against a powerful incumbent, they had a plan. They would raise their money not from a few large donors, but from a lot of small ones. They would speak candidly, fearlessly. They would call for debates. And who knew what the news cycle might have in store?

“We’re underdogs,” Wu told the Washington Post, “but we think we have a chance.”

JULY 22.
The Peruvian Independence Day celebration at the Elmhurst–Jackson Heights Senior Center in Queens was not an occasion for wonkiness. A hundred Spanish-speaking citizens of assorted Latin American heritages sat at round, blue-draped tables with centerpieces of balloons of red and white, Peru’s national colors. Women in blouses of turquoise and crimson. Men in flowered shirts. There would be dancing soon.

Net-neutrality rally, Washington, DC. / The Washington PostTim Wu’s message was brief. “All I want to say is, I am the son of immigrants,” he said into a handheld microphone from the front of the room. “My name is Wu, I am the son of immigrants, and I believe that New York should always remain a place that welcomes immigrants and treats them with respect and dignity, and makes New York a place where everyone feels at home.”

Moments earlier, Teachout had led the seniors in a recitation of her first name, which had confounded some of the ladies at the front tables. Then she shared a slice of her biography — large, tight-knit family from a small town — and reminded everyone that the Statue of Liberty was a woman. Wu, standing nearby in a black suit, clapped hard at Teachout’s applause lines.

He was getting the hang of this politicking stuff. The past month had been a blur of community centers, farmers’ markets, local political clubs, places of worship. That morning he’d spoken Mandarin at a Chinatown church. Now, in Queens, he and Teachout were tapping into the frustration in immigrant communities over the state legislature’s failure, in March, to pass the DREAM Act, which would have opened tuition aid to undocumented immigrant students.

“I am running on a pro-immigrant platform in order to see that we’re all treated with dignity,” Wu told the seniors.

Afterward, Wu spoke to a reporter about his other campaign themes. He talked about money in politics, and what he saw as the anti-progressive record of his opponent, Democrat Kathy Hochul, a former Buffalo congresswoman from a conservative district who had been handpicked by Cuomo. (In New York, the governor and LG run separately in the primaries.) But no matter the topic, the bird of conversation always wheeled back to the nest of concentrated power. This thread ran through Wu’s papers, articles, and books, his class in antitrust law, and in his frequent allusions to Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party and the depredations of consolidated wealth as articulated by Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis. His pet campaign issue — the Comcast–Time Warner cable merger — was a case study of what ailed the republic. And as with many problems, the remedy was already on the books, if only elected officials would apply it.

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