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Columbia Spectator Staff

Columbia Law professor Timothy Wu is ready to enter the government "jungle," two weeks after announcing that he will serve as a senior advisor to the Federal Trade Commission. Wu, who coined the phrase "net neutrality," will be taking a leave of absence for six months to advise the commission on legal problems related to privacy, competition, and consumer protection. "If scientists have laboratories where they figure out the facts, for us in legal academia, that's the government. It's going into the jungle," he said in a Thursday interview. In an age when people are interacting with the Internet in revolutionary ways—he referenced Libya and Egypt—Wu said the legal implications of those technologies are even more pressing. "Most Columbia students are probably Facebook users, iPad users—those are great products, but they present new and interesting problems," he said, calling the Internet an anti-censorship force, a forum to express opinions, and a place for business transactions. Wu has spent much of his career advocating for net neutrality, the principle that people should have access to an "open Internet" free of restriction from service providers with equal access to web content. While net neutrality does not directly fall under the jurisdiction of the FTC, his appointment has been seen as a boon for advocates of the policy. "I'm happy that he's in there as opposed to someone more connected with business, who might have conflicting interests," Kaley Hanenkrat, BC '11 and president of the Columbia University College Democrats, said. Wu himself said he was not expecting the appointment. "I was surprised that the chairman [FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz] would be able to so quickly appoint someone from academia," said Wu. "I think he likes having different perspectives." Wu's latest book, "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires," addresses the influence of corporate centralization on communication technologies. Wu believes that encouraging open access will be particularly helpful to businesses, as the Internet is a useful tool for entrepreneurs attempting to start new projects or innovators trying to increase access to their inventions. "Part of the reason the Internet has been able to flourish as a marketplace is because it allowed everyone—even those working out of a garage or a dorm room—to compete on a level playing field," said Sarah Gitlin, CC '12, a lead activist for the CU Dems. The CU Dems held a phone banking event earlier this year for Senator Chuck Schumer to advocate for net neutrality. Still, some worry that introducing open-internet policies will overregulate the market for service providers. "It may not be a good business decision, but if a certain provider wants to give access only to certain websites, they have the prerogative to do so," said Lauren Salz BC '11 and president of the Columbia University College Republicans. Wu described the FTC as having one simple goal: protecting consumers in an age of private power. "We're seeing a new sort of pattern where a small number of companies­—for example, Facebook and Google—are an order of magnitude more powerful than other platforms," Wu said. Although Wu said he was excited to work with government firsthand, he is firmly committed to returning to Columbia—where he said he would return with raw knowledge that will be useful to him as a professor, a position he called "the best job anyone could have." Until then, he'll be working to solve problems related to the ever-evolving world of Internet law. In this era, he said, "No one knows what the rules are."

Timothy Wu FTC