How Comcast and Time Warner Cable helped defeat the inventor of net neutrality

No beginners’ luck.
No beginners’ luck.
Image: AP Photo/Mike Groll
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Tim Wu, who invented net neutrality—at least the term for it—just lost a political battle with the giants of the internet.

The Columbia law professor, known for his pioneering work on the legal framework of the internet, was running for lieutenant governor of New York. His progressive ticket with gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout lost yesterday in a Democratic primary against sitting governor Andrew Cuomo and his running mate for lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul. While Teachout was widely expected to lose, handicappers thought Wu had a fighting chance to unseat Hochul.

The incumbents, with most of the state’s political establishment to their side, ultimately won handily and are expected to do so in the general election. But the fact that more than a third of their party’s primary voters chose different nominees speaks to the fractures in Cuomo’s support . The campaign put a spotlight on Cuomo’s shuttering of an anti-corruption commission investigating New York’s ethically challenged political establishment, as well as Hochul’s wishy-washy approach to issues that fire up Democratic voters, like hydraulic fracturing, health care reform, and gun control.

However, internet policy was a surprising undercurrent in the campaign. The government of New York has the power to put the kibosh on the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger thanks to its jurisdiction over the number one media market in the US. After Teachout and Wu promised to block the merger if elected, seeing it as a threat to the open internet, New York’s tech elite rallied around their campaign. Cuomo, on the other hand, was noticeably silent on whether he favors a merger between the two largest broadband internet providers in the country, even as his appointees began reviewing the tie-up and considering restrictions.

But the two companies are among the most politically influential in the country, and have demonstrated their clout even at the state level: Since Cuomo’s run for governor in 2010, Comcast and Time Warner have given his campaign more than $200,000, and also donated $500,000 to a party political account controlled by the governor. The disparity of resources between the two campaigns is a key reason for Teachout and Wu’s loss.

While Cuomo did sign a bill raising the standard for telecom mergers in New York to actively benefit the public, industry observers expect the New York State Public Service Commission to approve the merger if Comcast agrees to a package of restrictions, including keeping jobs in New York, worth perhaps $300 million. That might be a small price to pay to keep the lucrative merger in play, but the costs could add up if California, another important media market promising a stringent review, adds restrictions of its own. But critics of the merger say that such restrictions would do little stop a combination they argue will hurt competition and consumers.