The Master Switch, take 2

Tim Wu's book, The Master Switch, was favourably reviewed here by Rory Cellan-Jones (my husband, & the BBC's technology correspondent). I read it myself over the Easter weekend and agree with Rory's view that it's a superbly well-told history of the information industries in the US. 

As a former competition regulator, however, it was the competition analysis of these industries that jumped out at me – with their economies of scale, network effects, tendency to vertical integration and two-sided markets. Although he describes the recurrent Schumpeterian cycle of technological disruption, Wu's prescription is strict anti-trust enforcement against both horizontal and vertical combinations, and this is the perspective he brings to the current net neutrality debate. I think he understates the complexities of applying competition policy in these industries, but that's fair enough because there isn't a settled body of economic theory and evidence anyway.

Also interesting, however, is the link Wu draws between competition and free speech, or rather the diversity of perspectives and debate essential for civic engagement in a healthy democracy, and for artistic creativity in a modern economy. A 'discriminatory' network, he notes, can profoundly alter political debate, and he gives examples from each of his historical cycles. A concentrated media industry narrows the national conversation (p183). He argues for the concept of 'common carriage' as the information industries' counterpart to the 1st Amendment guarantee of free speech. (p57)

Finally, almost en passant, Wu takes a swipe at the extreme version of copyright protection some in the 'content' industries now advocate. “In an age that has radically commoditized content, it is as well to remember that Homer had no expectation of royalties.” (p37)

So it's certainly a thought-provoking book – some people will dispute his arguments. But whatever your perspective, an important book and a must-read for all interested in the content industries, net neutrality and all that jazz.

Here are some other reviews: BoingBoing; The Guardian; New York Times; Huffington Post.

PS Apologies for the brief disruption to this blog over the holiday weekend. Fingers crossed, the problem is fixed.

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