The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, by Tim Wu, Knopf 366 pages, $27.95
MOST CYBERLAW tracts or Internet policy books today lament a world full of corporate conspiracies, closed systems, "kill switches," and squashed consumer rights. The world loves a good tale of villainy and misery, and that's exactly what Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, delivers in The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.
Lawrence Lessig, the well-known legal scholar, kicked off this genre of hand wringing with his seminal 1999 book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, which warned that an unfettered digital marketplace would be anathema to our freedoms. "Left to itself" Lessig predicted, "cyberspace will become a perfect tool of control." Control, that is, by corporate forces hell-bent on dictating the course of commerce and culture. Lessig argued that collective action was needed to counter these forces.
Lessig's many disciples in academia and activism continue to preach this gloomy gospel of impending, corporate-led digital doom and "perfect control." Jonathan Zittrain's much-discussed 2008 book The Future of the Internet & How to Stop It brought Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace up to date by giving us a fresh set of villains. Gone was Lessig's old foil AOL and its worrisome walled gardens. Instead, the new faces of evil were Apple, Facebook, and TiVo. Zittrain fretted about "sterile and tethered" digital "appliances" (like the iPhone and TiVo) that foreclose digital innovation, as well as the rise of "a handful of gated cloud communities" (such as Facebook) "whose proprietors control the availability of new code."
Tim Wu extends this pessimistic narrative in The Master Switch. He ominously warns that there are "forces threatening the Internet as we know it," then crafts an enemies list that reads like a Who's Who of high-tech America. Wu sees "information monopolists" everywhere: Amazon, Apple, eBay, Google, Facebook, Skype, even Twitter. In Wu's telling, periods of openness and competition in information industries are inevitably followed by concentrations of private power; the companies that come out on top, he believes, then have a lock on their respective sectors. Wu refers to this as "the cycle" and suggests that "radical" steps must be taken to counter it and "preserve freedom." "If the stories in this book tell us anything," he writes, "it is that the free market can also lead to situations of reduced freedom. Markets are born free, yet no sooner are they born than some would-be emperor is forging chains. Paradoxically, it sometimes happens that the only way to preserve freedom is through judicious controls on the exercise of private power. If we believe in liberty, it must be freedom from both private and public coercion."
Wu and other progressives don't always come right out and say it, but they often suggest that private power, however defined, is so persistently insidious that the only way to counteract it is by greatly...