A Free and Public-Serving Internet

PLA speaker Tim Wu talks net neutrality and attention harvesting

March 26, 2018

Tim Wu Tim Wu speaks at the Big Ideas session at the Public Library Association Conference in Philadelphia on Saturday, March 24.
Tim Wu speaks at the Big Ideas session at the Public Library Association Conference in Philadelphia on Saturday, March 24.

Author, policy advocate, opinion writer, and inventor of the term net neutrality Tim Wu said his “love affair with public libraries” started in childhood.

“When I was 8 years old, I won one of those bookmark contests,” he told the crowd at his Big Ideas session at the Public Library Association Conference in Philadelphia on March 24. Wu still has the joke book he won for his prize-winning entry. “It was probably one of my proudest achievements of all time.”

Wu’s adoration for libraries, and the people who staff them, has endured.

“I owe you an enormous debt of gratitude,” he said. “The librarians have always been on the right side [of information, democracy, and self-governance].”

It’s these core values that inspired Wu to think about the concept that would become net neutrality during the internet startup craze in the early 2000s. “There was a lot of excitement about the internet,” he said. “There was also a strong desire to control information much more than it wanted to be controlled.”

Wu said he became uneasy about what the cable and phone industries saw as their future. He thought that communications carriers should not block access, should not discriminate, and should provide good, reliable internet.

“The fundamental idea [of net neutrality] was that the user should decide what the internet is,” said Wu. “If two people want to be in touch over this network, the carrier shouldn’t get in the way.”

He also noted that one of the first priorities of the Trump administration—after the travel ban—was killing net neutrality. “I think it comes down to the idea that freedom of information can be very threatening,” said Wu.

Net neutrality must be restored within the next few years because protecting the free flow of information is as important or more important than the First Amendment in our current times, Wu said. “So that’s my first Big Idea,” he laughed.

The second Big Idea that Wu addressed was our modern crisis of attention harvesting.

“Attention has become our scarcest and most valuable resource,” he said, pointing to the tactics and forces competing across multiple devices and media streams in our ad-model economy. “I believe it is the contest of attention that has actually led to some of the problems we have right now.”

Some of the problems Wu was referring to are data collection, targeted ads, and privacy breaches of online behemoths like Facebook and Google.

“Some of these businesses could have thought a little bit harder about their business model,” he said. Though he underscored that it wasn’t a perfect organization by any means, Wu offered Wikipedia as an example of what happens when your company mission is to serve the public. “Facebook was forced by its business model to become a machine of mass surveillance, time-suckingness, and mass manipulation.”

Wu ended his talk by calling for accountability.

“These companies must start operating with a true sense of fiduciary and public duty or face regulatory consequences,” he said. “I hope the librarians are on the same side as me as this one.”