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Lotsa style -- substance? Not so much . . .
on April 17, 2011
The great thing about prophecy is the prophet cannot lose, regardless of his prediction. If his doom-and-gloom prediction comes true, the prophet can rightly say "I told you so". If instead, disaster is averted, the prophet can claim his warning put us on the right path.
So what to make of Wu's latest tome? After 300 pages of doom-and-gloom leading up to the climax, Wu hedges his bets and makes no prediction either way. He suggests the "Separations Principle" as a way to preserve the openness of the Internet but then like a wide receiver going over the middle, pulls his arms in and ducks the ultimate prediction -- does Wu think the Internet will fall to the "Cycle" or not? Don't be fooled by Wu's statement "why the Internet will be different". A careful reading reveals he's not convinced that it WILL be different, only that it CAN be different, if only the government imposes his "Separations Principle".
As you know, Wu coined the term "Net Neutrality" in the early 2000s. He wrote his book before the FCC's December, 2010 net neutraility decision (which will be appealed as soon as the rules are published in the Federal Register). That should please him. But the last time the FCC ordered net neutrality (in the Comcast decision), the DC Circuit struck down the decision. But I digress.
Wu spins an elegant story. But I'm no expert in movies, television, radio, or cable. So it's hard to know just how accurate he is in describing the "Cycle" as applied to those industries. But I know a little bit about the history of telephony. If Wu's accuracy (or lack thereof) in his telephone chapters is representative of the book as a whole, I have to doubt some of his conclusions.
Take chapter 18 for example ("The Return of AT&T"). On page 246, he accuses SBC of a series of nefarious deeds, but one will look in vain in the end-notes for a reference to ANY of them (I'm not saying that SBC is innocent, just that it would be nice to have references so the reader can decide for himself). At the bottom of the page, he cites the Trinko case as an example of the courts allowing the free markets to work at the expense of competition. The Trinko decision says nothing of the sort -- essentially, SCOTUS decided in Trinko that the 1996 Telecommunications Act governed behavior between carriers and that there had been no anti-trust violation. And while the Court didn't cite lack of standing per se, its clear to anyone reading the decision that AT&T, if it were truly harmed by Verizon's behaviour, should have brought the suit, not a customer of AT&T.
On p247, Wu cites SBC opposition to the "line-sharing" provisions of the '96 Telecom Act. Again Wu gives no reference, so it's hard to know exactly what he means. In the telephone business, the term "line-sharing" has a very specific meaning (it means resale or leasing of DSL). If Wu means the telcos opposed leasing their voice lines to competitors, then he is wrong. Incumbent telcos had to do this in order to enter the long-distance business. If instead, Wu is referring to leasing DSL to competitors, he would be correct. But of course, he fails to mention that nothing in the '96 Act requires incumbents to lease DSL to competitors.
In a footnote at p247, Wu refers to the FCC eliminating the "platform" sharing requirement, at the suggestion of the DC Court. Again, Wu fails to mention that the '96 Act does not require incumbents to lease a "platform" to competitors. The Act requires incumbents to lease switching capacity, access lines, and computer systems ("OSS"). The Court overruled the FCC and rightly so, but you'd never know it just by reading Wu's account.
All this is to say Wu goes to great lengths to paint incumbent telcos and AT&T in the worst possible light to support his theory of the Cycle. Anyone versed in telephone history can see the bias in Wu's presentation. As one not so versed in the history of film, radio, TV and cable, I have to wonder if evidence of Wu's bias is so apparent in other sections of his book.
Disclosure: I used to work for SBC and AT&T, but I no longer do (in fact, AT&T/SBC involuntarily "downsized" me three years ago so I have no reason to defend them). My opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the position of any employer, past or present.
© Copyright Fred Goodwin, April 17, 2011