Tim Wu to the FTC: What does it mean?

Geoffrey Manne —  9 February 2011

As you may have heard, Columbia lawprof and holder of the dubious distinction of having originated the term and concept of Net Neutrality, Tim Wu, is headed to the FTC as a senior advisor.

Curiously, his guest stint runs for only about four and a half months.  As the WSJ reports:

Mr. Wu, 38, will start his new position on Feb. 14 in the FTC’s Office of Policy Planning, and will help the agency to develop policies that affect the Internet and the market for mobile communications and services. The FTC said Mr. Wu will work in the unit until July 31. Mr. Wu, who is taking a leave from Columbia, said that to work after that date he would have to request a further leave from the university.

Mr. Wu’s claim that the source of the date constraint is Columbia doesn’t pass the smell test.  Now, it is possible that what he says is literally true–and therefore intentionally misleading.  Perhaps he asked only for leave through the end of July and would indeed have to request further leave if he wanted it.  But the implication that Columbia would have trouble granting further leave–especially during the summer!–and thus the short tenure seems very fishy to me.

So what else could be going on, while we’re reading inscrutable tea leaves?  Well, for one thing, it could be that Wu has already signed on for some not-yet-public role at Columbia that he prefers not to imperil.  Maybe associate dean or something like that.

But I have another, completely unsupported speculation.  I think the author of The Master Switch (commented on by Josh and me here) and one of the most capable (as far as that goes) proponents of Internet regulation in the land is being brought in to the FTC to help the agency gin up a case against Google.

I think with Google-ITA seemingly approaching its denouement, the FTC knows or believes that Google is either planning to abandon the merger or else enter into an (insufficiently-restrictive for the FTC) settlement with the DOJ.  In either case, not a full-blown investigation and intervention into Google’s business.  So the FTC is preparing its own Section 5 (and Section 2, but who needs that piker when you have the real deal in Section 5?) (for previous TOTM takes on Section 5, see, e.g., here and here) case and has brought in Wu to help.  Given the switching back and forth between the DOJ and FTC in reviewing Google mergers, it could very well be (I haven’t kept close tabs on Google’s proposed acquisitions) that there’s even already another merger review in waiting at the FTC on which the agency is planning to build its case.

But the phase of the case requiring Wu’s full attention–the conceptual early phase–should be completed by the end of July, so no need to detain him further.

More concretely, I would point out that it says a lot about the agency’s mindset that it is bringing in the likes of Wu to help it with its ongoing forays into the regulation of Internet businesses.  By comparison, I would just point out that Chairman Majoras’ FTC brought in our own Josh Wright as the agency’s first Scholar in Residence.  Sends a very different signal, don’t you think?

Geoffrey Manne

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4 responses to Tim Wu to the FTC: What does it mean?

  1. 

    I’m not sure what this post has to do with my opinion on Google-ITA, but I’m quite certain that my views on Google-ITA are almost precisely opposite those of my former “pay master.”

  2. 

    It is amazing that your opinion of Google ITA matches that of your former pay master Microsoft.

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