Book review: The Master Switch

Summary:There is a mythology about the internet, going back to its earliest days, that says it cannot be controlled. As evidence to support this idea, adherents point to a long line of rebellions, from the renegade propagation of the alt Usenet hierarchy — after the newsgroup creator gods refused to allow groups for discussing sex and drugs — to peer-to-peer file-sharing and Wikileaks.

There is a mythology about the internet, going back to its earliest days, that says it cannot be controlled. As evidence to support this idea, adherents point to a long line of rebellions, from the renegade propagation of the alt Usenet hierarchy — after the newsgroup creator gods refused to allow groups for discussing sex and drugs — to peer-to-peer file-sharing and Wikileaks. True, anyone can launch a new application, service or protocol: the internet is open.

For now. The internet is not the first new medium to be greeted with starry-eyed, democratic utopianism. In The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Columbia professor Tim Wu examines the history of its forebears — the telegraph, telephone, radio, movie, and television industries. In clear and compelling prose, Wu demonstrates that what closed those media was not some innate characteristic of their technologies, but business and policy decisions. For decades you could not, for example, attach your own equipment to the telecommunications network or set up your own radio or TV station without permission in the form of a licence. You can make your own movies, to be sure, but any independent filmmaker will tell you how hard it is to find financing or theatrical distribution without studio backing.

Don't imagine that Britain is somehow exempt because broadcasting took a different path — public instead of corporate. The BBC was as centralised a monopoly as any corporate owner could have wished, and BT's complete control and local phone rates went a long way to slowing adoption of online networking in the early days. Now, the Digital Economy Act and other rights holder-friendly legislation seek to control technological development.

Wu takes his title from a speech given by Fred W. Friendly, one of the early greats of television news (played by George Clooney in the 2005 movie Good Night and Good Luck). Friendly famously resigned from CBS in 1966 when the network preferred to show an episode of the sitcom The Lucy Show rather than the first Senate hearings on US involvement in Vietnam. What mattered in media, Friendly said, was not censorship or the First Amendment, but "exclusive control of the master switch". This is the heart of today's battles between Verizon and AT&T, Apple and Google, Microsoft and the open source movement: who will control the internet's master switch?

Wu is not alone in thinking that we are approaching the moment when the internet, in its turn, may too be closed; he joins, for example, radio historian Robert McChesney and Harvard scholar Jonathan Zittrain, whose 2005 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, warned of the danger of allowing general-purpose computers to be replaced by wholly controlled black boxes. A current example of what we should be worried about is last week's decision by the FCC to clear the merger between the US cable giant Comcast and traditional TV/radio network NBC. Today's corporate battles between the 'centralisers' and those who favour openness over network neutrality and content control are the modern versions of these past battles. The big advantage we have over those last times is that we have people like Tim Wu to recount the history to keep us from repeating its mistakes.

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires By Tim Wu Alfred Knopf 366 pages ISBN: 978-0-307-26993-5 $27.95

Wendy Grossman

Topics: Reviews

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