The social goods of information networks: Complex equality and Wu's separation principles
First Monday

The social goods of information networks: Complex equality and Wu's separation principles by David Michael Douglas

In his book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Tim Wu proposes a ‘Separation Principle’ that the control of communication infrastructure should be separated from control over the information transmitted across it. I suggest that the Separation Principle can be further justified by appealing to Michael Walzer’s concept of complex equality. In this analysis, the integrated control of communication infrastructure and control over who can use it is unjust as the influence of the infrastructure sphere is influencing the sphere of expression. This gives a further theoretical justification for Wu’s Separation Principle and for resisting the monopolisation of information networks.


The just distribution of social goods
The social goods of information
Information networks
Wu’s Separation Principles




Norbert Wiener is right to claim that “[t]o live effectively is to live with adequate information.” [1] The prospects of groups and individuals and the quality of their decisions depend on the information accessible to them. Inequalities in the information people can access can entrench inequalities in living conditions and outcomes. Concerns about inequalities and restrictions in accessing information and information technology occur both within societies (such as the ‘digital divide’ between the well–off and the less fortunate or more isolated members of a society), and between peoples and nations (such as the effects that restrictions and inequalities in information access have on global development that the Access to Knowledge (A2K) movement seeks to address) (Rooksby and Weckert, 2004; Kapczynski, 2010). A key component of these concerns is how the networks used to convey information and make it accessible are controlled. Information networks, such as telephone networks, postal services, and the Internet, serve as vehicles for conveying information and ideally for sharing knowledge and wisdom. How such networks are controlled influences how accessible information is to those depending on it.

Tim Wu’s (2010) book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires examines these issues with an overview of how telecommunications networks have developed and controlled, with a particular emphasis on how these networks are regulated within the United States. Wu concludes his book by proposing a broad ‘separation principle’ for guiding policy decisions concerning the Internet and other networks that addresses the concerns raised by the development and regulation of previous communication networks.

In reviewing Wu’s book, Milton Mueller (2011) rightly criticises the lack of detail on the separation principle and how it would work in practice. Elaborating on how the separation principle would guide network regulation would easily fill a book on its own, and I do not propose to attempt it here. However, I suggest that such an account could begin by building on Michael Walzer’s concept of ‘complex equality’. Wu’s proposal and Walzer’s theory are connected by the concept that separations of power within different areas of social activity are necessary to prevent injustices occurring if one party controls a particular social good. Walzer’s theory has previously been considered as a useful tool for examining issues surrounding inequalities in access to information technology (Hongladarom, 2003; van den Hoven and Rooksby, 2008). Connecting Wu’s proposal and Walzer’s theory allows for the separation principle to be further refined and critiqued using the conceptual tools provided by Walzer’s theory and the scholarship surrounding it. Applying the conceptual tools offered by theories of distributive justice such as Walzer’s allows us to decide whether these networks are allowing knowledge to be disseminated or serve as an instrument of reinforcing existing inequalities.

This paper presents my argument that Wu’s separation principle can be described in the terms of Walzer’s theory of distributive justice. I present an abstract conception of information networks as methods for people to communicate with others. Building on previous accounts of information networks, I divide information into three aspects: accessibility, understanding, and transmissability. Information networks are a means of propagating information between people, and so magnify the effects of these aspects of information. I argue that these three aspects of information networks are separate social goods, and that if unchecked, control over one of these aspects will unjust affect the distribution of the others. I conclude by describing Wu’s three formulations of the separation principle, and show how they can be presented in the terms of Walzer’s theory and by the conception of information as a social good I have presented. I begin with a brief account of Walzer’s theory of distributive justice and the concept of social goods.



The just distribution of social goods

Goods are things that are desirable and beneficial to any rational person’s life plans (Rawls, 1971). Social goods are those society as a whole can distribute between its members. Social goods are external to any one person and require some degree of co–operation to gain and maintain. Walzer’s (1983) aim in Spheres of justice is to present a conception of equality that avoids the problems of conformity and constant redistribution that befall strict egalitarianism. Walzer attempts this by shifting the focus from distributing goods as independent things in the world towards goods as deliberate creations made for specific reasons. Walzer summarises his theory of distributive justice as:

No social good x should be distributed to men and women who possess some other good y merely because they possess y and without regard to the meaning of x. [2]

The motivations for devising and creating particular goods are more important for deciding how they should be distributed than determining what goods are distributed. In other words, how the members of a society conceive of a particular good determines how it should be justly distributed (Walzer, 1983). This creates the possibility for different forms of distribution for different goods to be just, unlike alternative theories (such as strict egalitarianism) that propose a single criterion for a just distribution of social goods. ‘Equality’, in the complex form Walzer proposes, is maintained if the method of distributing one particular social good does not interfere with the distribution of other social goods: “no citizen’s standing in one sphere or with regard to one social good can be undercut by his standing in some other sphere, with regard to some other good.” [3] An unequal distribution of one social good should not lead to inequalities in other distinct social goods (i.e., possessing more of one social good should not allow someone to dominate the distribution of other social goods). Distinguishing between different spheres and different social goods prevents inequalities in one area from necessarily imposing inequalities in another.

Walzer uses the concept of dominant social goods to define monopolies and tyranny in the context of distributive justice. Dominant goods can more easily be converted into other social goods. Money is a straight–forward example of such a good. A monopoly occurs when those possessing a dominant good can exploit that control to influence the distribution of other social goods (Walzer, 1983). Using the method of distributing one social good to determine the distribution of a different social good is tyranny in Walzer’s theory, a conception that he traces back to Pascal and Marx (Walzer, 1983). This influence (or domination in Walzer’s terms) is unjust as it corrupts the legitimate distribution of the dominated good described within that society's conception of that good. The domination of the distribution of one social good over the distribution of other goods is a form of tyranny as it gives those holding a dominant good of power over others.

Walzer’s theory can be illustrated simply with an example from the ancient games at Olympia. During his reign the Roman emperor Nero was awarded the prize for a chariot race despite falling out of his chariot and failing to finish, even after being helped back into the chariot (Suetonius, 1989). While this is almost certainly the least of the injustices we can attribute to Nero’s abuses of political power, this illustrates the intuitions about justice that lay behind Walzer’s theory. In this instance Nero’s influence in the political sphere dominated the sphere of sporting competition, where the first competitor who completes the race fairly is awarded the prize. Nero’s absolute political power gave him tyranny over the distribution of goods (like the awarding of prizes to a race winner) within other public spheres.

Before discussing the social goods associated with information networks, I should distinguish between Walzer’s use of the term ‘monopoly’ and how it is used in economics (and by Wu). As described earlier, Walzer calls a situation where someone controlling a dominant social good exploits that control for her own benefit a monopoly (Walzer, 1983). An economic monopoly exists when a single agent supplies a particular good in the market, and so can control the price and distribution of that good. These interpretations of monopoly reflect different concerns. The economic concerns with monopolies are concerned with efficiency and the possibility of monopoly rents — payments above and beyond what the monopolist would otherwise receive for her product if there was market competition between different suppliers for it. Walzer’s concern with monopolies is how such control over a particular social good may create unjust distributions of other social goods. Monopolies in the marketplace do not necessarily have the effect of influencing how other goods are distributed. For clarity I will use the terms market monopoly and social monopoly to distinguish between these two conceptions of monopolies.



The social goods of information

Information networks are the connections that allow individuals and groups to exchange information among themselves. Information networks can be described in terms of physical, logical, and content layers (Benkler, 2006). The physical layer describes the infrastructure and medium used to send and receive information. The logical layer (also called the code layer) describes the format of information sent across a network, while the content layer covers the information transmissible across it (Lessig, 2002). The social goods of such networks are best described by first examining the social goods of information itself. [4].

We need descriptions of the world (both descriptive and normative) and accounts of potential actions and outcomes to make meaningful decisions about our lives (Benkler, 2006). Jeoren van den Hoven and Emma Rooksby (2008) rightly describe access to information as a Rawlsian primary good. Primary goods, which Rawls defines as rights and liberties, powers and opportunities, income and wealth, and self–respect, are things necessary for anyone to pursue her own way of life, regardless of what her individual life plan may be (Rawls, 1971). Van den Hoven and Rooksby (2008) argue that access to information is necessary for individuals to make informed decisions about how they should live and to participate in the society in which they live.

Information must be both accessible and comprehensible to an effective aid to decision–making. Not all available information is useful or accurate, and individuals need the ability to understand information and to evaluate it for themselves. Comprehension may require asking others for clarification or expressing information to others as a way of confirming one’s understanding. The ability to communicate is vital for understanding accessible information. Belonging to an information network creates a means of communicating with others and accessing information that others make accessible through it. The social goods of information networks derive from the social goods of communicating with others. If information is a primary good for an individual, communication is a social good that increases the primary good of information available to those who possess it. Communication increases the information anyone can possess by increasing the amount of information available to everyone. Freedom of expression and freedom of thought (in the sense of being exposed to others’ ideas) are examples of these goods. They are social goods as they require the contribution of others to be valuable to an individual. Literacy and numeracy are social goods as they give individuals the capability to communicate ideas with others and understand the ideas others express.

The social goods of information can be classified as accessibility, understanding, and transmissibility. Accessibility is the ease of obtaining information, either physically or socially. It can be thought of as the willingness to share information. For example, a secret someone refuses to divulge is inaccessible information. Understanding is the capacity to comprehend how particular information is expressed. This is the ability for someone to recognise and interpret information presented to her, including both the syntax and semantics of how that information is expressed. Literacy and numeracy are examples of this social good. Transmissibility is the method used to convey information between people. It is the ability for someone to express themselves to others via a language, either written, verbal, or physical. To serve as a social good transmissibility requires others to understand that language. Writing can only express information if others can read it. Transmissibility and understanding both require knowledge of the syntax and semantics of the information, while accessibility is the difficulty (or otherwise) of exposure to the medium conveying that information. These aspects of information as a social good correspond to the three layers of information networks Benkler (2006) describes. The physical layer determines information’s accessibility as it describes the medium used to convey information. The logical layer describes the syntax and semantics that make the information intelligible to those who understand them [5]. Finally, the content layer controls the kind of information that can be communicated (i.e., transmissibility) in a particular way.



Information networks

Information networks multiply the social goods of communication by increasing the number of people it is possible to communicate with. Any method of conveying information that can be used as both a one–to–many (i.e., one person or group can convey information to multiple people or groups at once) and as a many–to–many (multiple people can communicate with multiple people) form of communication is an information network. Book publishing, postal services, telephones, radio and television, and computer networks are all forms of information networks. Such networks can be either synchronous or asynchronous, depending on whether those communicating must access the network at the same time for them to exchange information. An unrecorded telephone call is a synchronous information exchange as both the caller and receiver must be on the telephone network at the same time to communicate. Printing a book is an asynchronous exchange of information as readers can access the information within it at any time after it is released.

The significance of information networks is best illustrated by considering the effects of deliberately restricting individuals’ ability to communicate with each other. Restricting access to books prevents others from obtaining the information contained within them. Those without access are either denied this information or are dependent on another’s description of it. This dependence can be exploited by whoever controls access to books. Controlling the teaching of a written language also allows control over who can access the information within books. Consider Frederick Douglass’ (1892) account of why slave owners prevented their slaves from learning to read. Preventing slaves from learning to read denies them the ability to access ideas that may lead to question their status as property and inferior to their masters. Illiteracy creates an additional barrier (beyond physical inaccessibility) to accessing and understanding the content of books. Being unable to write prevents someone expressing her ideas and experiences beyond the circle of verbal communication. Further expression of her ideas depends on her audience communicating them to others, with all the possibilities of manipulation and distortion that entails. Writing gains its value from others reading and understanding expressed ideas. Controlling how writings are distributed (and so controlling what writings are distributed) restricts both the audience of one’s writings and the ideas that can be communicated. This control over the distribution of information is the risk of tyranny and domination from controlling information networks.

The socially and politically significant features of information networks are access, content, and infrastructure (Mueller, 2011). Access is the means and ability to send and receive information across a given network. It can be regarded as membership of that network. Content describes the information allowed to be transmitted across a network. Infrastructure is the means of conveying information from one node to another across an information network. These features are interconnected with each other. Content motivates people to join the network. Infrastructure is built and maintained to satisfy the demands of access and content. Access is driven by demand for network content and the availability of network infrastructure. This interconnectedness allows a monopoly in any one of these features to dominate the others. A monopolist of infrastructure can control who can access her network (and by extension, what the network can be used for). Monopolising access can control the demand for infrastructure and who is able to join the network. Monopoly over content grants control over the usefulness of a network and thus the demand for infrastructure and access to it. Table 1 lists some examples of information networks and their particular features [6].


Table 1: Socially and politically significant features of various information networks.
Information networkAccessContentInfrastructure
booksliteracy and physical availabilitywritings and imagesbook production and distribution
telephonedevices permitted onto the networkvoice and datatelephone lines and exchanges
postal servicepost offices, postboxes, and delivery areasletters and parcelsmail transport
radioradio receivers and transmittersaudiotransmitters and radio spectrum
televisionTV sets and transmittersvideo and audiotransmitters and radio spectrum
Internetnetwork devicesdigital dataphysical communication medium (cables, wireless, etc.)


The significance of information networks is how they can affect how information is accessed, understood, and conveyed to those belonging to that network. If one party can dominate one or more of these aspects of information networks, they can influence the information available to those who use it (Benkler, 2006). If one form of information is inaccessible, unintelligible or incapable of being conveyed across a particular network, another network must be used for sending and receiving that information. A choice between different information networks controlled by different operators allows individuals to use whichever network they believe conveys trustworthy information (Benkler, 2006). If there is no alternative, the information an individual can access is limited to whatever she can gain on her own via other means. The problem information networks raise for distributive justice is how to prevent such domination from unjustly affecting those relying upon it to communicate with others and make decisions based on the information it provides.



Wu’s Separation Principles

In The Master Switch Wu (2010) argues that centralised control of an information network can be prevented by requiring the control of the major functions of an information network to be separated from each other. Wu’s (2010) principles are inspired by the traditional separations between church and state and the legislative, juridical, and executive branches of government found within the liberal tradition in political philosophy. Distributing powers between different groups is intended to moderate the individual power of each group. Without such a distribution of power, a tyranny may emerge from the concentration of power in one group. Wu also draws upon Joseph A. Schumpeter’s description of the ‘creative destruction’ inherent within capitalism, where new technologies, products, processes, and markets supplant existing ones (Wu, 2010; Schumpeter, 2010). Wu argues that attempts by network operators to protect their networks against new uses and technologies distorts this aspect of capitalism and constrains economic growth by hampering innovation (Wu, 2010). Wu’s principles attempt to prevent a market monopoly in one aspect of an information network (infrastructure, access, or content) from dominating the others. These principles are:

  • Developing network industries should be protected from disruption from entrenched monopolies. Wu refers to this as the Temporal Separation principle.
  • A single entity should not control an information network’s access, infrastructure, and content. As Wu does not give this principle a specific name I will refer to this as the Network Detachment principle.
  • Governments should not intervene in markets to protect existing information network technologies or monopolies from competition and new technologies. Wu calls this the Regulatory Separation principle.

These formulations of a general ’separation principle‘ each emphasise a particular threat to the autonomy of each aspect of information networks: entrenched network operators, vertical integration (the control of multiple stages of communication by a single entity), and government protection of existing networks, respectively.

The Temporal Separation principle seeks to allow new information networks to emerge without unfair competition from the operators of existing networks. The success or otherwise of the new network should be based on the usefulness and popularity of the network with its users, without interference from existing network operators. Wu colourfully refers to the tendency of existing network operators to attempt to limit competition as the Kronos Effect, where an existing market monopoly attempts to secure its position by undermining or co-opting new technologies before they can challenge the monopoly’s position (Wu, 2010). [7]

The Temporal Separation principle recognises the power network effects have on the adoption and continued use of a network. Networks become more useful to their users as more people join them. The access to other users and the resources available across a network are benefits lost to those who leave that network or do not belong to it. The network effects of belonging to an existing network also serve as a barrier for entry for new competitors into that market. Separating the different aspects of networks can address these effects by limiting the network benefits of a network’s accessibility, content, or infrastructure to only that particular aspect of that network. The network benefits of particular content, for example, could be gained via different network infrastructure or means of access if the controller of the network’s content does not control the intrastructure or accessibility. This separation prevents any one aspect of a network becoming dominant (in Walzer’s terms) over the others.

This separation is particularly important for new technological developments that utilise existing network infrastructure, such as Internet services that use the physical network infrastructure of telephone and cable operators. The cost of creating a new physical network infrastructure is prohibitively expensive, and serves as a barrier for entry by competitors. Often a market monopoly in network infrastructure will emerge. Even if a monopoly does not emerge, the costs of establishing network infrastructure will favour existing network operators. New providers of access and content services need access to existing network infrastructure to be practical. If infrastructure operators can restrict new uses of their network, it gives them the opportunity to control the content it conveys. Control over infrastructure would dominate access and content. To combat this possibility, information and transport networks (such as postal services and road networks) have historically relied on the principle of ‘common carriage’ to address this concern due to their significance to public welfare (Wu, 2010). Frederich Hayek’s argument that abuses of market monopolies can be removed by requiring monopolists to treat all customers equally by not distinguishing between them on service or pricing also supports this principle (Hayek, 2003). Wu’s principle seeks to prevent a market monopoly in network infrastructure becoming a social monopoly that risks imposing tyranny on its users.

The Network Detachment principle prevents a single operator from controlling the three aspects of a network (access, content, and infrastructure). This principle is specifically directed against vertical integration occurring with an information network. Integration creates the opportunity for the controller to impose tyranny over a network. Such vertical integration has the possibility of being self–sustaining due to network effects, and creates a significant barrier for new networks to emerge and gain widespread adoption. Detaching these aspects makes it more difficult for a controller of one aspect of a network from dominating the others. Network detachment also restricts government action as it also prohibits the state (as a single entity) from having total control over a network (that is, control over access, content, and infrastructure).

The Network Detachment principle also acts as a safeguard from an operator abusing the market monopoly they might gain over one aspect of an information network. Again, this reflects Walzer’s concerns about how dominating one sphere can affect justice in distribution within other spheres. As Wu notes, separating control over different network aspects is also supported by Hayek’s arguments that centralised control and coordination will never be able to respond appropriately to local needs (Wu, 2010). The possibility of decentralised control over network access presents the opportunity for networks to best serve the requirements of its users rather than those who control its infrastructure. The needs and desires of users would dictate network access, content, and infrastructure through the competition for customers that separating these aspects of information networks allows.

Like the Temporal Separation principle, the Regulatory Separation principle is intended to protect emerging technologies and networks from premature failure. This principle is focused on restricting government influence rather than that of existing network providers, and according to Wu, captures the belief that the state should act only to limit private power rather than to reinforce it (Wu, 2010). The Regulatory Separation principle addresses the problem of political power dominating the business sphere by preventing fair market competition in information networks and technology. A network operator who enjoys government protection is privileged over other networks and their operators. While the social benefits may justify the state supporting and maintaining particular information networks (such as public television and radio broadcasters, for example), this does not justify the state limiting the development or deployment of competing networks that may supercede it.




The significance of information on shaping the beliefs and actions of individuals makes the regulation of how information is shared and communicated a vital political and social issue. Inequalities in access to knowledge lead to inequalities in individual life prospects. Walzer’s theory of distributive justice and his concept of complex equality are just one method of examining these inequalities and determining whether they are unjust. Wu’s book can be read as a series of historical examples of where complex equality between network providers and network users has either been protected or violated.

Theories of distributive justice such as Walzer’s offer us conceptual tools to identify the social concerns connected with network regulation. Understanding how these theories can be applied to these issues can help us recognise the possibilities for injustice and act to ensure that information networks contribute to human flourishing instead of offering another avenue for tyranny and suppression to occur. End of article


About the author

David M. Douglas received a Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Queensland in 2011. His research interests are computer ethics, intellectual property, and distributive justice.
E–mail: dmdouglas256 [at] gmail [dot] com



1. Wiener, 1954, p. 18.

2. Walzer, 1983, p. 9.

3. Walzer, 1983, p. 19.

4. For this paper, information should be understood as the everyday use of the term.

5. Lessig’s (2002) term ‘the code layer’ highlights the connection between this layer and understanding how the information is expressed.

6. Wu’s book The Master Switch describes the history of U.S. regulation in telephone, radio and television networks in depth.

7. The reference is to the ancient Greek myth of the Titan Cronus, who attempted to prevent his prophetised overthrow as ruler of Heaven and Earth by his children by eating them after their birth.



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Editorial history

Received 31 March 2013; accepted 29 August 2014.

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The social goods of information networks: Complex equality and Wu’s separation principles
by David Michael Douglas.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 9 - 1 September 2014

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