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For Big Tech and its supporters, President Biden's decision to put Tim Wu on the National Economic Council is the most ominous sign yet that Wu's signature warning is correct: "The antitrust winter is over."
Wu is a leader in the progressive movement to break up Big Tech. As special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy, a newly-created position under Biden, he will work across the federal government to identify policies that could loosen the grip the major tech companies hold on the economy and encourage competition in the tech industry, according to sources familiar with the position.
The move is rattling representatives of the tech industry and its allies, who say Wu's work is full of big ideas that ignore the realities of enforcement and the potential harms of breaking up the biggest companies in the country. "There's certainly a laser focus by Mr. Wu on technology platforms — it seems to permeate almost everything he does," said Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel at tech trade group NetChoice. "Essentially, you've got somebody who is so convinced that something is bad that they will seek to prove their hypothesis rather than engage in true analytics."
Berin Szoka, the president of tech-funded think tank TechFreedom and Wu's former law student at Columbia University, said it's not "surprising that the Biden administration would consider an appointment like this an opportunity to make [progressives] feel included, and that their concerns were being taken seriously at the highest level." But he said it's too soon to tell how influential his position could be, considering positions at the NEC are often nebulous and deeply shaped by the personalities within the White House.
But a Biden administration official told Protocol that Wu's role at the NEC will be significant. "There are very few high-level positions in the NEC — people aren't just giving them away to stick somebody in the basement," said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the position. "You get that position because you're going to play a meaningful role in policy discussions. It doesn't mean you run everything, but it certainly means he'll be a voice at the table."
The official said Wu's appointment reflects the administration's view that competition in the tech space "involves much more than antitrust enforcement."
"He will be a voice for identifying how there are multiple players in the federal government who can work with antitrust enforcers to promote competition in the tech sector," the official said, adding that Wu's work could involve helping to shape rules for the future of AI or privacy across various agencies.
Wu, a professor at Columbia University and author of a series of books on monopoly power, has been pushing to create a position at the NEC focused on cultivating a "whole government" approach to competition policy. And now he has the opportunity to make that dream a reality in what will likely be the most important chapter in his career, picking up where he left off at the end of the Obama administration when he helped shape former President Obama's 2016 executive order on competition.
"With the choice of Tim Wu as special assistant to the president for technology and competition, it is clear this administration is serious about promoting competition in the United States," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the head of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, said in a statement. "He has been a leading thinker on technology and competition policy issues, from his work on net neutrality to his recent scholarship on the monopoly power crisis. I look forward to working with Mr. Wu to modernize antitrust enforcement, strengthen our economy, and protect workers and consumers."
Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor and venture capitalist turned tech reformer, said Wu has "mastered the interface between tech reform and the government agencies responsible for doing something about it." The two met in New York in 2017, when McNamee and former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris were holding meetings with policymakers and antitrust advocates to discuss the growing tech-lash. At that point, the movement to reform the tech industry through policy was in its "embryonic" stages — and Wu, a quirky academic with a subdued demeanor and a deep loathing for corporate exploitation, was at the center of it.
"I'd say there's no academic who's had a bigger impact than Tim has," said Bill Kovacic, the former Republican chairman of the FTC, who worked with Wu when he was an adviser at the commission between 2011 and 2013. "Whether it's net neutrality, whether it's more recent work on the direction of competition law and policy — on several occasions, he's changed the debate."
It's true that Wu has left his fingerprints on almost every major government decision affecting Silicon Valley since the early 2000s. After coining the term "net neutrality" in a seminal 2002 paper, Wu helped the FCC to craft its net neutrality rules. Earlier in his career, he helped companies including Google think through their approach to major policy issues, said Alan Davidson, who was the head of Google's policy shop between 2005 and 2011.
"Tim was one of the OG early deep thinkers on hard internet policy problems," Davidson said. "He certainly influenced the Google policy shop's views on issues like net neutrality and competition." At the time when Wu came in to talk to Google's policy team, Davidson said, Google mainly thought of itself as a smaller player compared to companies like Microsoft and the telecom companies — a "simpler time," as Davidson put it. And then, only a few years later, Wu was a key member of the team at the FTC that decided to pass on suing Google in 2013 (a decision he vigorously defended before doing an about-face a few years later.)
Wu would go on to become one of Google's major critics, calling for the government to use its full powers to break up monopolies "in the age of Google." And he held meetings in 2019 with the FTC, DOJ and state attorneys general laying out the case for breaking up Facebook, about a year and a half before the FTC and a coalition of 48 states sued Facebook for anticompetitive conduct. Scott Hemphill, an antitrust professor at New York University who gave the presentation to regulators alongside Wu and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, said there's a "snug fit" between their ideas for the antitrust case against Facebook and the case that the FTC eventually brought.
And Wu has been closely connected to Rep. David Cicilline, the chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. Cicilline gave opening remarks at a talk about Wu's book "The Curse of Bigness" in 2019, calling it a "powerful and important contribution to our understanding of today's monopoly moment and how we got here." Wu was a consistent adviser to the House Judiciary antitrust staffers who conducted the months-long investigation into Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon. Their final report, which concluded the tech giants were operating like monopolies, mentioned Wu more than 20 times.
Sources close to Wu described him as unusually flamboyant for an academic, known for cultivating unique hobbies like winter surfing in New York City and opining to his 50,000 Twitter followers under the handle "@superwuster." (He said on Friday that he's "putting this Twitter feed on hold for now.") And he's been known to put his foot in his mouth, ruffling feathers in his quest to condemn the government's approach to Silicon Valley over the last several decades.
Before Wu joined the FTC, he told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the FTC had been "quieted during the Bush years almost to the point of nonexistence," aggravating his soon-to-be-colleague Kovacic, who was the chairman of the FTC under Bush. Wu apologized to Kovacic and the two made up — but Kovacic pointed out that Wu was part of the team that decided not to sue Google.
"When you read the Chronicle of Higher Education story, the whole tone of the story is, 'This place is a disaster. I'm here to save it,'" Kovacic said. "So I'd take a look and ask, 'Dr. Wu, how did that saving effort go?'"
Throughout his stints in the government — the New York attorney general's office, the FTC and Obama's NEC — Wu has mainly served as a big thinker seeking to expand how his colleagues approached competition issues. And now his task will be turning all that energy into substantive policy change during the Biden administration.
Szabo said Silicon Valley shouldn't underestimate the importance of Wu's appointment.
"It should not be hand-waved away," he said. "This could be dangerous."
Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.