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Law Professor Lawrence Lessig on Net Neutrality, the Rise of Google and His “Change Congress” Project to Take on Corruption in Washington

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Renowned Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig is one of the world’s leading figures in the field of cyberlaw. He joins us for a conversation about today’s FCC hearing on net neutrality; Creative Commons; the rise of Google and its efforts to influence public policy; and Change Congress, his most recent project to take on corruption in Washington. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: All five Federal Communications Commissioners are holding a public hearing here in Stanford University today to discuss net neutrality and what rules should govern high-speed Internet networks. Net neutrality is the principle that all internet sites should be equally accessible to any web user.

The event is part of the FCC’s ongoing investigation into the blocking of web traffic by Comcast. The cable giant is accused of disrupting video traffic uploaded by users of the BitTorrent peer-to-peer network. The investigation comes in response to a complaint filed by the media reform group Free Press and a coalition of public interest organizations.

The commission already held one public hearing in February at Harvard University. Comcast was later forced to admit it paid people to fill seats at that hearing. Harvard said dozens of genuine participants were forced to stand outside the hearing unable to participate.

Today’s hearing will take place at 12:00 noon at Stanford University. Among those attending will be the prominent Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, one of the world’s leading figures in the field of cyberlaw. He is the founder and co-director of the Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society and chair of the Creative Commons project. His most recent project is called Change Congress. Lawrence Lessig joins us today here in the Stanford University studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Very glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about today’s hearing and the significance of it, the issues that the FCC is taking on.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, the FCC is confronting the fact, first, that broadband development in America has been wildly inferior, relative to other competitive nations. We’ve got very poor access and service relative to our competitors, and that’s a problem, produced largely by bad policy at the federal level.

So the particular issue at stake now is whether network owners, who have become fewer and fewer as the reach of their networks has grown and the monopoly power of the networks has grown, will have the power to pick and choose which content and which applications run on their network. The way the internet was originally built, it was made such that the network owners would have no such power, no such control, because it was architected to give all the power to people at the edge of the network, people using the network. But what they’ve done is built technologies in the center of the network to give them the ability to decide which kind of packets or which kind of applications work and which kinds don’t, which messages they like, which ones they don’t. And the whole issue about network neutrality is whether the government will allow them to exercise the technical power to begin to control what kind of network will develop.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain what Comcast exactly is doing.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, one problem is we don’t really know. They’ve not been straight with us about what they were doing.

What happened in this particular instance is that there was an allegation that they were blocking BitTorrent traffic, which is a traffic related to peer-to-peer file sharing, so when you have large files and you want to distribute them on the internet, one very efficient way to do it is to do it with peer-to-peer, meaning many people are sharing the bandwidth to distribute it. Now, Comcast was alleged to be blocking traffic, and initially they said they weren’t. They repeatedly said they weren’t. And then, when it was essentially proven that they were blocking the traffic, then they said, “Well, we’re not blocking the traffic; we’re just slowing the traffic.” And they were doing so by inserting little messages in the internet traffic to confuse the recipient and the person sending to basically disrupt the traffic.

Now, one important fact about this is that they just weren’t straight, that it took forever to get them to admit what in fact they were doing. Secondly, they were doing something which most network technologists would say has nothing to do with really preserving the efficiency of the network, but is instead about being able to exercise control over what happens on their network.

AMY GOODMAN: What about high definition and being able to bring it into your computer?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, whether you can do that will depend upon, first, the bandwidth that’s available, and secondly, whether the cable company that’s serving you will permit it. Now, here’s exactly the problem: if your computer can begin to be a high-bandwidth video device, it competes pretty directly with video service that you’re paying for from a cable company. So you can understand how a cable company who’s providing you internet service might think twice before they allow that internet service to become a competitor with HBO or with the other cable things that you have to pay for. So this has been the constant concern. If the owners of the wires get to muck about with the kinds of content that come across the wires, then they might block competition that’s valuable, both because it’s increasing the diversity of content available and also because it’s enabling new kinds of applications to come onto the network.

AMY GOODMAN: Perhaps part of what’s difficult for how people can get involved in the debate is just the terms.


AMY GOODMAN: What exactly does “net neutrality” mean?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah. It means — it’s something that should be very familiar. Think about the electricity grid. Alright, when you plug a television into the electricity grid, it doesn’t ask, “Is it a Sony television or a Panasonic television?” It doesn’t ask, “Is it a toaster made in America or a toaster made in Japan?” It just runs. It just works. And that’s because the electricity grid is a neutral network in this sense. You comply with the protocols — what the plug’s got to look like and how much power you’re taking — and it runs. That’s the way the internet was. It used to be it didn’t matter whether it was a browser made by Microsoft or a browser made by Netscape or a browser made by Mozilla. It just ran because the protocols said if you follow the rules, the system will run.

What’s happening now is it’s as if the electricity company, PG&E, was beginning to control what you could plug into the electricity grid, deciding which televisions it would allow and basically selling the right to be a television on the electricity grid. So they say, for example, if you want to have internet content on our platform, you’re going to have to pay us to have internet content on your platform. So it’s not about the consumer having the power to choose whatever the consumer wants to watch. It’s about whether the network owner also wants to make this available to the consumer. So it radically changes what the internet is and makes it something much less vibrant and potential for democracy and free speech.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Lessig, I went to the Googleplex the other day, to the Google headquarters in Mountain View. Can you talk about the enormous growth of this company?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, so, it’s hard to remember that a decade ago, basically, this company didn’t exist. It starts as an experiment here at Stanford. And what this company did was —-

AMY GOODMAN: What you mean an experiment at Stanford?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, it was a bunch of grads students at Stanford who began to think about a different way to run a search engine. So the very first Google pages have at the bottom “copyright Stanford University.” It was a Stanford project. Then they obviously went off and turned it into the most successful internet business so far.

What they’ve done is exactly the vision of how value gets produced in the twenty-first century. They figured a way to add value to what other people had produced out there. So the internet search engine, Google, takes content that’s out there on the web and organizes it in a way that makes the information much more valuable than it otherwise would. And they’ve built a team of the most innovative technologists who have constantly developed radically new ways to take advantage of the potential of the internet.

Now, it’s because at no stage did they have to ask permission from the network owner that they’ve been able to do this. If, at the very beginning, Larry -— Sergey Brin and Larry Page had to go to the existing network owners at the time, AT&T, for example, and say, “May we develop this new technology for your network?” it would have taken years for the company, AT&T, to even figure out whether this was going to be permitted, just like if they had gone to a cable company and said, “We want to open a new cable station on your network,” it would take forever to get that permission.

What the internet did, for most of its history, was say to innovators, “If you build the next great mousetrap, it will run on our network.” And what’s happening now is the network owners are basically saying, “No, we want the right to say whether something can run on our network or not. Now, trust us. We’ll pick the best applications, and we’ll make sure that it’s the right mix of speech.”

But what Comcast has demonstrated right here is there’s no way to trust them. If you trust them, they misrepresent what in fact they’re doing, engage in behavior which is contrary to their representation of what they’re doing about leaving an open network. And that’s why it’s become critical that the FCC set a very clear principle here, that they want a network, an internet network, that’s consistent with the way it’s been from the very beginning: open and neutral and free.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned about the amount of personal information that Google has?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: I am, and I think Google is, too, because I think Google, like any company that needs to continue to compete, needs a very credible way to represent to the world that it’s doing — that what it’s doing with data is things people ought to be able to trust. So it has a very strong interest in maintaining that reputation. Now, I personally have been a critic of Google in some of the ways they’ve implemented their privacy policies. I think they’ve sometimes been insufficiently sensitive to some of these issues. But the one thing that’s important here is that they remain within a market of lots of competitors who are trying to build a better Google or a better infrastructure here, and they face that competition.

I think it’s also a concern that they might develop to be so powerful in the market that the government has got to worry about whether they’ve got too much monopoly power relative to other people, too. I don’t see that as an issue right now, but that’s a potential. And I think the government’s role is always to make sure that the market here continues to preserve the competition that makes sure that you don’t have to trust the competitors; they do the right thing because the market demands it.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of companies like Yahoo! handing over personal information, for example, to China?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah, this is extremely hard, and I think what companies have got to do is decide first where they ought to be based on the values of the country where they’re going to be, because wherever they’re going to be, they’re going to need to comply with the law. Now, there was one issue — one issue with Yahoo! was whether in fact they needed to be as efficient in their compliance with the law. But the reality is that if you are doing business in a country, that country’s government is going to have the ability to force you to reveal information related to the servers that are in your country. And I think companies, especially in the context of the internet, have got to be increasingly worried about how they build their system, if they want to preserve and defend values which are traditional values for us, at least.

AMY GOODMAN: I would think that a lot of companies have some wiggle room, have a large area to pressure the government of China right now, because China is vulnerable. They want the Olympics to go well there. This is a big opportunity for companies to get concessions from the government.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: It is. But I think one big problem here is imagining companies as the leaders in public policymaking. You know, companies are in the business of making money. And if we begin to imagine a world where we trust companies to do good public policy, then we’re fools, because they’ll do good public policy when it makes sense for them from a financial perspective to do it, but when it doesn’t make sense for them from a financial perspective to do it, they won’t.

And so, what we need is public policy that’s driven by the public, by institutions in the public, that set the rules that lead companies to do the right thing. So I think it’s appropriate for the United States government to decide: do we want to impose requirements on our companies to make them comply with standards that we think are important? And that’s the question, not whether we want to shame Google or shame Yahoo! into behavior, which may just not be consistent with [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Lessig, talk about the Creative Commons. What is it?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, the Creative Commons was a response, a private response, to what we consider to be radically overburdensome regulation around copyright. So most people on the internet would make their work available, and their expectation was, I want you to be able to share this, or I want you to be able to remix this, maybe not for commercial purposes, but I want you to be able to do stuff with it. Well, copyright law said, well, the only way you can do this is if you get permission first. And, of course, this created a huge amount of uncertainty and burden.

What Creative Commons does is give people a simple way to mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry. So, for example, you can, say, share my work, remix my work, as long as it’s for noncommercial purposes. And what that does is make it clear and simple for people to use the internet the way most of us thought it would be used without worrying about heavy regulation or heavy uncertainty of copyright law on top. So, we launched it about five years ago, and depending on your counts, there are over a hundred million different objects out there that are now marked with Creative Commons license. The project is now imported to forty countries around the world.

And it’s really a movement of artists and creators who are saying we don’t want the extreme control that copyright gives Hollywood and Hollywood demands; we want a more balanced system. Of course, we do not to sometimes give away everything we’ve got, because we’ve got — you know, we’re artists, we need to make money in certain contexts. But we certainly want to enable people to be able to share and build upon their work.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Lessig, explain your Change Congress project.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: So, Change Congress tries to take the same idea to the problem of congressional reform. One thing I’ve become convinced about is that our government has been so compromised by this dependency that exists between members of Congress and those who fund their election that there’s a fundamental lack of trust or faith in the public in what our government does. I was considering running for Congress here in California, and we found that 88 percent of Democrats believe that money bought results in Congress. Now, I don’t actually think that’s true, but what that says is that people just think this system is about money.

So what Change Congress does is it gives candidates and members, like Creative Commons, an ability to identify themselves as reformers, meaning you — like a Creative Commons license, you can get a Change Congress badge that says: I’m not going to take money from lobbyists or PACs, I believe in public financing for public elections, I want to abolish earmarks, and I believe in increased transparency in Congress. And you begin to identify members who take this position. And we’re going to build a kind of EMILY’s List system to fund and drive support to those candidates, so that we get a much stronger level of support for reform in Congress right now.

Right now, the whole debate is about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or John McCain. But the only way real reform happens is if it happens in Congress. And so, what we’ve got to do is begin to make it clear how we get a congress committed to reform, so that we can begin to make it possible that real reform happens inside of Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you — there was discussion of you running for Tom Lantos’s seat, the congressman from California, but you decided not to. Why?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah, I decided not to because, first, there’s a fantastic woman who is running, Jackie Speier, who has very solid progressive values. But I wanted to run a campaign that was focused exclusively on these process issues. I think it’s outrageous that members of Congress take money from the people they’re trying to regulate. And I wanted to focus the campaign on that issue only.

What we found as we did research polling was that because there were only forty days between the time I would announce and the election, there just wasn’t enough time to make this issue salient in the district, so that people would know enough to be able to choose me for this issue. So the fear was, I would go out there and run a campaign about reform, I would get defeated pretty substantially, and everybody would take from that a message about the fact that the reform movement can’t succeed, when in fact it should be understood as a message about how extraordinarily popular this very, very competent and committed representative is.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you see is the role of media in reforming government?

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, I think that the media has got to do more, to get deeper. So, I’m not sure if this is a thing you make public, but you started this interview by saying, “No sound bites.” This is the first time I’ve ever been in a media context where the word “no sound bites” has been uttered, because media’s whole focus is, how do I present a show that can keep people’s ADD attention for, you know, ten minutes or five minutes? And that creates a context where it’s impossible to get people to think about something much more substantial than, you know, what happens to me on the headlines of the New York Times or Google News. So, I think media has got to find ways to get people into this story.

So, for example, this issue of Change Congress is about how do we make the process work. It’s not about how do we make Democrats love Republicans. I think we’ve got to have real battles between the two parties about substantive issues.

AMY GOODMAN: I hate to say it, but we have five seconds left.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: OK, so help us explain this more. It’s going to take more than ten seconds.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I hope you’ll help us by coming back to Democracy Now! And that does it for today’s broadcast. Lawrence Lessig, Stanford law professor, one of the world’s leading figures in the field of cyberlaw, founder/co-director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

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