Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University. His specialities include competition, copyright and telecommunications law. So far, so conventional. But Wu is an unconventional academic. For one thing, he ran for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governorship of New York (and won 40% of the popular vote, though not the primary election). For another, he served for a time in the office of New York’s attorney general, specialising in issues involving technology, consumer protection and ensuring fair competition among online companies. “If I have a life mission,” he said once, “it is to fight bullies. I like standing up for the little guy and I think that’s what the state attorney general’s office does.”
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As I said, no ordinary academic. But it gets better. Wu is also the guy who coined the phrase “net neutrality”, which has turned out to be a key concept in debates about regulation of the internet. He was for a time a senior adviser to the Federal Trade Commission, America’s main consumer protection agency. And somehow, in the middle of all this activity, he writes books that make a big impact.
The cue for his new book, The Attention Merchants, is an observation the Nobel prize-winning economist Herbert Simon made in 1971. “In an information-rich world,” Simon wrote, “the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
In the Talking Politics podcast this week, David Runciman, Aaron Rapport and I discussed the aftermath of Silicon Valley’s response to Trump, Russian hacking, Obama’s puzzling response to it and John Kerry’s speech about Israel.
This morning’s Observer column:
In 1996, two US congressmen, Chris Cox (Republican, California) and Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon), drafted a law that they felt was essential if the nascent internet was to grow and prosper. The clause they wrote eventually found its way on to the statute book as section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, part of the sprawling Telecommunications Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996.
Cox and Wyden had been troubled by the rise of libel suits against internet service providers (ISPs) for defamatory content posted on websites that they hosted. The key sentence in the clause that they eventually drafted read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
This single sentence provided the legal underpinning for how the world wide web has evolved…
Lovely NYT column by Paul Krugman. He starts by reminding readers of how big the US economy is. It employs 145 million people. And every day, on average, 75,000 people get fired or laid off.
But why am I telling you this? To highlight the difference between real economic policy and the fake policy that has lately been taking up far too much attention in the news media.
Consider, by contrast, the story that dominated several news cycles a few weeks ago: Donald Trump’s intervention to stop Carrier from moving jobs to Mexico. Some reports say that 800 U.S. jobs were saved; others suggest that the company will simply replace workers with machines. But even accepting the most positive spin, for every worker whose job was saved in that deal, around a hundred others lost their jobs the same day.
In other words, it may have sounded as if Mr. Trump was doing something substantive by intervening with Carrier, but he wasn’t. This was fake policy — a show intended to impress the rubes, not to achieve real results.
So why don’t news media put Trump’s fatuous bluster into that kind of context? Search me.