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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This was not exactly a concession speech. As the cameras flashed, Wu did not resemble the archetypal losing candidate with the stricken smile, winking gamely at supporters in an ill-lit ballroom. Rather, he looked moved, grateful, pleased. He and Teachout had done, if not the impossible, then the possible — and at this moment the distinctions were meaningless. Calling the campaign “one of the most incredible, enriching, startling, amazing experiences of my life,” Wu swallowed whatever regret he may have felt at the outcome and considered the numbers. “I think we gave a pretty damned good show,” Wu told the crowd. “We took at least 40 percent of the vote, twenty counties — and I have one paid employee.” Wu never mentioned Cuomo or Hochul. Instead, he raised his rhetoric to a national register. “Inequality has become a moral issue,” he said. “The wealth disparity between the haves and have-nots has become repulsive to anyone who believes we share a common humanity. We have lost touch with the fundamental American value of equality, and that must change.” He proclaimed himself a Democrat rooted in Progressive Era antitrust, anti-corruption values. “Let me remind you: corporations are not human beings. An economy that works for corporations does not necessarily work for us. We’re in competition with corporations. We need to reaffirm that this is a party — this is a country — that cares about humans more than it cares about legal fictions.”

It became clear, as Wu spoke, that he and Teachout had an agenda beyond the election. “You know this doesn’t end here,” Wu said, though he hardly had to. As many in attendance knew, another battle was coming, and it was right over the next hill.

WU 2.0. “This is the fight of our times.”

Six days after the election, Tim Wu stood in a gray suit under a crystal-blue sky amid a group of more than a hundred demonstrators on Broadway next to City Hall. People held signs that said SAVE THE INTERNET.

It was September 15, the deadline for comments on the FCC’s Internet rules, whose language permitted “commercially reasonable” deals for carriers. The public had submitted 3.7 million comments. “The problem,” Wu had written on the New Yorker’s website in May, “is that the words ‘commercially reasonable,’ on their face, imply slow-lane and fast-lane deals, whereby carriers like AT&T and Comcast would favor the strong and hurt the weak, while enriching themselves in the process.”

Election-night party, Hell’s Kitchen. / Timothy Fadek / Redux

Four months and one political campaign later, Wu, the father of net neutrality, was addressing the movement that he had started. Only he wasn’t exactly the same. His brief rewiring on the political circuit might have been part of it (followed by a post-election re-rewiring), but some other switch had been thrown: two months on the trail had brought him out of his writer’s solitude, out of cyberspace, and into the living street.

“Why has net neutrality struck a nerve?” Wu said to the throng, oratorically. “I’m telling you, it is a debate over what kind of country we want to live in, and a debate over the meaning of America.”

Among those applauding Wu was Zephyr Teachout. This was the pair’s first public appearance together since the election — a mini-reunion of sorts, almost nostalgia-tinged, and a substantiation of Wu’s election-night remark that “this doesn’t end here.”

“Net neutrality stands for a simple principle: that in certain parts of life, we need equality,” Wu said. “The sense that when you go on the Internet and speak your piece, that you have the chance to be heard as much as the big guys do — that’s the kind of country we want to live in. Net neutrality stands for the idea that there are some parts of the public sector that are just too basic to be divided between the haves and the have-nots, that are just too essential to let some people go faster and others go slower.”

Wu reminded people, too, that in October, the public-service commission would announce its verdict on the Comcast merger.

“Billions of dollars in higher prices is not in the public interest,” Wu said, returning to his pet campaign topic. “There is no way that Americans need to be paying more for cable and Internet. The public interest is open Internet and lower prices. What’s not in the public interest is higher prices and a consolidated cable industry. Anyone who looks at the issue for five minutes, who hasn’t taken money from Comcast, sees it.”

Back in the fight, it seemed that Wu’s loss in the primary might be net neutrality’s gain. As LG, he would have had a public platform from which to shine light on the subject. But as a private citizen, he was completely unfettered.

The next day, after teaching his copyright class, Wu sat behind his desk in his book-filled office at Columbia, paring his fingernails with a three-and-a-half-inch hunting knife that he’d gotten in Argentina. Behind him, on the floor, a hulking, rock-fleshed, three-foot-tall replica of the Marvel Comics superhero The Thing stood ready to clobber somebody.

Wu couldn’t say whether he’d try politics again, but he knew his experience had been unusually positive — he’d had a great staff, for starters — and was unlikely to be repeated. He’d enjoyed himself immensely, had stayed true to himself, and hadn’t been bloodied. Best of all, he still had a major stage from which to shine his light.

“Columbia is a great platform for addressing the issues that I care about and intend to keep pushing on — antitrust, communications, infrastructure,” he said. “Everyone’s talked about taxes, but how about the access to daily necessities, and the power of private monopolies over cable?”

As Wu angled the lustrous blade against his cuticle, he was asked about a comment he once made, that it was regular people who should go into politics — not creatures.

Wu thought for a moment. “I did notice something on the trail. One morning, I said, ‘You know, every day on this campaign, my skin gets thicker.’ Which I guess is a good thing, but it’s also how you become a reptile.”

Nona Farahnik ’12LAW lives in Los Angeles. In the summer of 2014, she took a leave of absence from her job as an associate at Latham & Watkins to serve as Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu’s campaign manager in his race for lieutenant governor of New York.

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