Timothy Wu, the Columbia Law School professor and author who coined the phrase “net neutrality,” is putting his theories into practice as senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission on consumer protection and competition issues that affect the Internet and mobile markets.
On leave from Columbia since February, Wu, 39, is working on the FTC’s pending antitrust investigation into Google Inc. He’s also running the FTC’s policy-platform group, which he calls “an early warning system” for issues related to emerging technologies.
“I love working for the government,” Wu said. “The FTC’s basic mandate is to help out the little guy.…I think law is at its best when looking for wrongdoing.”
Wu, whose Taiwanese father and British mother were both scientists, applied to Harvard Law School almost on a whim. “I had a very indistinct idea what law was about,” he said, and a vague notion that being an international business lawyer would be glamorous. But when he took a class from digital copyright law guru Lawrence Lessig, he found his calling. “I was a computer geek,” Wu said. “I realized I actually knew something.”
After earning his law degree in 1998, Wu clerked for Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, then U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
Wu’s 2010 book, The Master Switch, considered how early revolutions in communications technology gave way to privately controlled industrial behemoths. His fear, he said, is that the Internet will wind up consolidated in the hands of two or three companies, and “will become like what happened to telephone and radio,” with power concentrated and innovation stifled.
He’s now working on another book that he’s thinking of calling either Giants or Titans or Scale. “I’ve always been interested in the effect of bigness,” he said, “and the very obvious dark side of scale.” — Jenna Greene