Interview with Lawrence Lessig
This interview was originally intended for a different publication; I only discovered recently that it hadn't run. Lessig and I spoke in late January, while the fate of the Research Works Act was still unknown (it's since been killed.
"This will be the grossest money election we've seen since Nixon," says the law professor Lawrence Lessig, looking ahead to the US Presidential election in November. "As John McCain said, this kind of spending level is certain to inspire a kind of scandal. What's needed is scandals."
It's not that Lessig wants electoral disaster; it's that scandals are what he thinks it might take to wake Americans up to the co-option of the country's political system. The key is the vast, escalating sums of money politicians need to stay in the game. In his latest book, Republic, Lost, Lessig charts this: in 1982 aggregate campaign spending for all House and Senate candidates was $343 million; in 2008 it was $1.8 billion. Another big bump upward is expected this year: the McCain quote he references was in response to the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United legalising Super-PACs. These can raise unlimited campaign funds as long as they have no official contact with the candidates. But as Lessig details in Republic, Lost, money-hungry politicians don't need things spelled out.
Anyone campaigning against the seemingly endless stream of anti-open Internet, pro-copyright-tightening policies and legislation in the US, EU, and UK - think the recent protests against the US's Stop Internet Piracy (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property (PIPA) Acts and the controversy over the Digital Economy Act and the just-signed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) treaty - has experienced the blinkered conviction among many politicians that there is only one point of view on these issues. Years of trying to teach them otherwise helped convince Lessig that it was vital to get at the root cause, at least in the US: the constant, relentless need to raise escalating sums of money to fund their election campaigns.
"The anti-open access bill is such a great example of the money story," he says, referring to the Research Works Act (H.R. 3699), which would bar government agencies from mandating that the results of publicly funded research be made accessible to the public. The target is the National Institutes of Health, which adopted such a policy in 2008; the backers are journal publishers.
"It was introduced by a Democrat from New York and a Republican from California and the single most important thing explaining what they're doing is the money. Forty percent of the contributions that Elsevier and its senior executives have made have gone to this one Democrat." There is also, he adds, "a lot to be done to document the way money is blocking community broadband projects".
Lessig, a constitutional scholar, came to public attention in 1998, when he briefly served as a special master in Microsoft's antitrust case. In 2000, he wrote the frequently cited book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, following up by founding Creative Commons to provide a simple way to licence work on the Internet. In 2002, he argued Eldred v. Ashcroft against copyright term extension in front of the Supreme Court, a loss that still haunts him. Several books later - The Future of Ideas, Free Culture, and Remix - in 2008, at the Emerging Technology conference, he changed course into his present direction, "coding against corruption". The discovery that he was writing a book about corruption led Harvard to invite him to run the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, where he fosters RootStrikers, a network of activists.
Of the Harvard centre, he says, "It's a bigger project than just being focused on Congress. It's a pretty general frame for thinking about corruption and trying to think in many different contexts." Given the amount of energy and research, "I hope we will be able to demonstrate something useful for people trying to remedy it." And yet, as he admits, although corruption - and similar copyright policies - can be found everywhere his book and research are resolutely limited to the US: "I don't know enough about different political environments."
Lessig sees his own role as a purveyor of ideas rather than an activist.
"A division of labour is sensible," he says. "Others are better at organising and creating a movement." For similar reasons, despite a brief flirtation with the notion in early 2008, he rules out running for office.
"It's very hard to be a reformer with idealistic ideas about how the system should change while trying to be part of the system," he says. "You have to raise money to be part of the system and engage in the behaviour you're trying to attack."
Getting others - distinguished non-politicians - to run on a platform of campaign finance reform is one of four strategies he proposes for reclaiming the republic for the people.
"I've had a bunch of people contact me about becoming super-candidates, but I don't have the infrastructure to support them. We're talking about how to build that infrastructure." Lessig is about to publish a short book mapping out strategy; later this year he will update incorporating contributions made on a related wiki.
The failure of Obama, a colleague at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the mid-1990s, to fulfil his campaign promises in this area is a significant disappointment.
"I thought he had a chance to correct it and the fact that he seemed not to pay attention to it at all made me despair," he says.
Discussion is also growing around the most radical of the four proposals, a constitutional convention under Article V to force through an amendment; to make it happen 34 state legislatures would have to apply.
"The hard problem is how you motivate a political movement that could actually be strong enough to respond to this corruption," he says. "I'm doing everything I can to try to do that. We'll see if I can succeed. That's the objective."