Preston Gralla

Apple is number one danger to Internet freedom, says Columbia professor

November 15, 2010 11:16 AM EST
The man who coined the term "net neutrality" now says that Apple is the company that most endangers the freedom of the Internet. Columbia law professor Tim Wu also tells the New York Times that he expects that danger to outlive Steve Jobs' tenure at Apple.

Wu recently published the book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, in which he details what he calls "information empires" such as AT&T, NBC, Facebook, and Google. In an interview, he told the New York Times, "It's largely a story of the American affection for information monopolists and the consequences of that fondness."

In the interview, he describes how AT&T eventually became a monopolist and supressed technologies that might be able to compete against it. Here's what he had to say about AT&T specifically, and information empires in general:

Most monopolists create a golden age that lasts a decade or more, and then slowly they became more interested in being in power. AT&T became dangerous when they began to suppress technologies that might threaten their rule.
When asked whether the Internet could similarly be controlled by large companies, he said this:
I know the Internet was designed to resist integration, designed to resist centralized control, and that design defeated firms like AOL and Time Warner. But firms today, like Apple, make it unclear if the Internet is something lasting or just another cycle.
Later in the interview came this exchange:
Which companies do you fear the most?

Right now, I’d have to say Apple.
...
What worries you about Apple?

As I discuss in the book, Steve Jobs has the charisma, vision and instincts of every great information emperor. The man who helped create the personal computer 40 years ago is probably the leading candidate to help exterminate it. His vision has an undeniable appeal, but he wants too much control.
Finally, he says that he doesn't expect Apple to change its desire to control the Internet, even when Jobs leaves. Here's the final part of the interview:
Do these C.E.O.'s make decisions that aren’t in the best interest of the public?

As I show in the book, there's a similarity to power and great nations. The man who starts as the great reformer often ends his career by becoming increasingly paranoid and abusive. There's a cycle, and the problems usually shows up when the great leader feels his power is threatened, like a political leader.

What part of these "evil" acts are the C.E.O.'s and what part are the employees?

I think the mogul makes the medium, but it's also true that once a firm has been in existence long enough, it begins to have a life of its own.

Do you think that will apply to Apple?

Yes.

But who will take over it from Steve Jobs?

I think it may not matter. I think the mark of Steve Jobs is firmly placed on that firm, that it will continue to be him long after he passes from leadership.
I think Wu is on target about Jobs' overweening desire for control, but I'm not sure that Apple will be able to continue to exert that kind of control when he leaves the company. He's been able to exert control because he's visionary enough to build products that create entire new markets, and people put up with Apple's demand for control over how those products are used. But there are no visionaries-in-waiting at Apple, and at whatever point the company can't create the kind of products Jobs has, people won't put up any longer with Apple's need for control.