December 15, 2008  ·  Lessig

I got off the plane from Boston to find my inbox filled with anger about an article in the Wall Street Journal. To those who were angry, I hope you will direct any anger at the Wall Street Journal after you read what follows.

The article is an indirect effort to gin up a drama about a drama about an alleged shift in Obama’s policies about network neutrality. What’s the evidence for the shift? That Google allegedly is negotiating for faster service on some network pipes. And that “prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject.”

Who are these “Internet scholars”? Me. And of course, because I have “softened” my views about network neutrality, and because I advised the Obama campaign about technology issues during the primary, it follows (and obviously so) that Obama too must be going soft on network neutrality.

I don’t know what Google is doing, though if they are trying to negotiate exclusive deals for privileged access, that shows exactly why we need network neutrality regulation. (Though note, the article doesn’t say the deal Google was striking was exclusive).

And I’ve not seen anything during the Obama campaign or from the transition to indicate it has shifted its view about network neutrality at all.

But I do know something about my own views, and what the Journal has done here is really extraordinary.

It is true, as the Journal reports, that I have stated that network providers should be free to charge different rates for different service — “so long,” the Journal quotes, “as the faster service at a higher price is available to anyone willing to pay it.”

But the whole punch of the story comes from the suggestion that my position is something new. As the Journal states,

Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law professor at Stanford University and an influential proponent of network neutrality, recently shifted gears by saying at a conference that content providers should be able to pay for faster service.

And:

Stanford’s Mr. Lessig, for one, has softened his opposition to variable service tiers.

Missing from the article, however, is the evidence that my view is a “shift” or “soften[ing]” of earlier views. That’s because there isn’t any such evidence. My view is the view I have always had — whether or not it is the view of others in this debate.

For example, in April, 2008, I testified before the Senate Commerce Committee. This is what I said:

As I testified in 2006, in my view that minimal strategy right now marries the basic principles of “Internet Freedom” first outlined by Chairman Michael Powell, and modified more recently by the FCC, to one additional requirement — a ban on discriminatory access tiering. While broadband providers should be free, in my view, to price consumer access to the Internet differently — setting a higher price, for example, for faster or greater access — they should not be free to apply discriminatory surcharges to those who make content or applications available on the Internet. As I testified, in my view, such “access tiering” risks creating a strong incentive among Internet providers to favor some companies over others; that incentive in turn tends to support business models that exploit scarcity rather than abundance. If Google, for example, knew it could buy a kind of access for its video content that iFilm couldn’t, then it could exploit its advantage to create an even greater disadvantage for its competitors; network providers in turn could deliver on that disadvantage only if the non-privileged service was inferior to the privileged service.

That’s the same thing I said to the FCC in its hearing at Stanford. You can hear what I said beginning at minute 18:20 here. There I distinguish between “zero price regulations” (such as Markey’s bill (which I say I am against)) and what I called “zero discriminatory surcharge rules” (which I say I am for). The zero discriminatory surcharge rules are just that — rules against discriminatory surcharges — charging Google something different from what a network charges iFilm. The regulation I call for is a “MFN” requirement — that everyone has the right to the rates of the most favored nation.

This is precisely the position that the Journal breathlessly attributes to me today. It represents no change — no “softening” no “shift” in my views.

Now no doubt my position might be wrong. Some friends in the network neutrality movement as well as some scholars believe it is wrong — that it doesn’t go far enough. But the suggestion that the position is “recent” is baseless. If I’m wrong, I’ve always been wrong.

December 14, 2008  ·  Lessig

Andy Oram has a fantastically compelling piece about why it is important to support Creative Commons.

Let’s keep the momentum going, and [make] sure they can continue to lay the groundwork for a public domain that becomes increasingly important for innovation in a tight economy and for political engagement in a newly aroused community-minded public.

December 13, 2008  ·  Lessig

The United States Congress is toying with setting the wages of UAW workers.

This fact apparently surprises some (including Michael Moore). And the fact that I oppose the bailout surprises some (except those convinced I’ve been recaptured by my teenage (and Republican) self).

But the statistic most significant to me is as MAPLight.org nicely reports, “House members voting ‘yes’ on auto industry bailout received, on average, 65% more from auto industry interests than those voting ‘no.’”

Take the money out of politics (and here’s a specific proposal for doing that), and then come back to me to talk about the good, public regarding reasons why Congress is stepping in to “save the auto industry.”

December 12, 2008  ·  Lessig

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It is with a complicated mix of excitement and sadness that I make the following announcement.

As some of you remember, just over a year ago I reported that I was shifting my academic (and activist) work from free culture related issues to (what I called) “corruption.” At Stanford, a year ago, I outlined what this work would be: To focus on the many institutions in public life that depend upon trust to succeed, but which are jeopardizing that trust through an improper dependence on money. Read the New York Times Editorial of last week. Or think of medical researchers receiving money from drug companies whose drugs they review; legal academics receiving money to provide public policy advice from the very institutions affected by that advice; or Congress filled with Members focused obsessively on how to raise money to secure their (or their party’s) tenure. In all these cases, dependency on money in these ways tends to weaken public trust. Or so was my hypothesis when I launched on this project.

But how I would pursue this work has been a constant challenge. I started immediately to devour the books recommended to me by colleagues and on my wiki. I attended conferences and gave talks about the subject. I began a series of interviews with insiders. And with the help of Joe Trippi, I launched Change Congress, which was designed to focus these issues in the context of American politics.

Throughout this process, however, I have felt that the work would require something more. That the project I had described was bigger than a project that I, one academic, could pursue effectively. This wasn’t an issue that would be fixed with a book. Or even with five books. It is instead a problem that required a new focus by many people, across disciplines, learning or relearning something important about how trust was built.

About six months ago, I was asked to consider locating this research at a very well established ethics center at Harvard University. Launched more than two decades ago, the Safra Center was first committed to building a program on ethics that would inspire similar programs at universities across the country. But the suggestion was made that after more than two decades of enormous success, it may make sense for the Center to consider focusing at least part of its work on a single problem. No one was certain this made sense, but I was asked to sketch a proposal that wouldn’t necessarily displace the current work of the Center, but which would become a primary focus of the Center, and complement its mission.

I did that, mapping a five year project that would draw together scholars from a wide range of disciplines to focus on this increasingly important problem of improper dependence. Harvard liked the proposal. In November, the Provost of Harvard University invited me to become the director of the Safra Center. Last week, I accepted the offer. In the summer, I will begin an appointment at the Harvard Law School, while directing the Safra Center.

This was a very difficult decision to make. Stanford is an extraordinary law school, and I have loved my time here. The students are brilliant, yet balanced. The faculty is brilliant, yet surprisingly humble. The Dean has an amazing vision of the future of legal education, and is redefining the law school in ways that I completely support. I am endlessly proud of the Center for Internet and Society and the Fair Use Project. I have the very best assistant in the world (and she promised at least 5 more years if I stayed). I have written four of my five books while here. I’m almost finished with my 6th, the book I am sure I will be most proud of. This is a place that has given an enormous amount to me, and from which I have benefited greatly.

On a personal level, too, this was a difficult decision. California has become our home. My wife is strongly attached to everything Californian; we both have very close friends here; I hadn’t ever imagined raising my kids in anything but the social and political environment of San Francisco. I still find it hard to imagine that I won’t, if not now, sometime. And the enormous beauty of the environment here still takes my breath away. A year into my time at Stanford, I was certain I would never leave. After a blissful weekend with my family last week, it still hasn’t registered that I will be leaving.

But in the end, it was impossible for me to be committed to the project while turning down this opportunity. It is not just the institution, nor the (partial) freedom from teaching. It is the chance to frame a large-scale project devoted to a large, important and complex problem. Once we saw it like this, my wife and I decided that returning to this old home was the right thing to do. And so in June, we will pack up the car for a cross country trek, back to Harvard.

Of course, I have no objective cause to complain. Harvard too is an extraordinary law school. As anyone who knows me knows, some of my closest friends in the world are at Harvard, including the Dean (or at least until Obama steals them all away). Harvard has grown and changed in wonderful ways over the past eight years. It will be an enormously exciting place to teach and learn.

But I regret deeply doing anything that is hurtful to those I respect and like. Worse, I hate doing anything that can be misunderstood. When Dean Sullivan recruited me, she said Stanford was paradise. I thought that was just a slogan. It isn’t. I consider the 8 years I have had here to be the most important and invigorating in my career. And I will miss everything about this place.

Some things won’t change. I will continue to work with Joe Trippi to build Change Congress. And I will continue to explore how best to incorporate this space (the Net) into this research. But I will do all of this, and my work, in the context of Harvard’s Safra Center and its Law School, and of old friendships, revived.

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December 10, 2008  ·  Lessig

I’m working on a presentation that could really use a Simpsons-esque like section. I emailed Matt Groening, but he didn’t respond (no, I didn’t really email Matt Groening). Anyway, if any of you are the next Matt Groening, and want to work on a short cartoon segment for a global warming/corruption related preso (all to be ccFree), email me at lessig at pobox dot com? It wouldn’t be long, and it is easy to describe. Thanks in advance.

Update: Thanks for the responses so far. Two important clarifications — I don’t actually need a cartoon that looks like the Simpsons. I mean only something that could be used in the wonderfully ambiguous way that the Simpsons is used to be serious and not in the same spin. Also, the critical thing here is animation — I need an animated cartoon to make the point I’m trying to make. Thanks again.

December 9, 2008  ·  Lessig

These bailouts are an awful idea — the worst of K St. capitalism (== kapitalism) inviting an insanely bad future for the industries affected. If there’s one thing worse than Detroit managed by the managers who have been driving the American auto industry into the ground for the past three decades, it is Detroit managed by politicians.

I’m not against all bailouts. I think it was appropriate to save the airline industry after 9/11, for example: That was an unexpected shock that produced a failure not directly related to the bad management of the airlines.

But these bailouts are not that. Both the auto industry and the banking industry are insanely inefficient. They have been for decades. And rather than being saved from a shock, both need a significant shock to management to radically change how they do business.

Perhaps the shock to banking would be too great just now. I’m willing to be persuaded that intervention is necessary there. But the more I read about the auto industry, the less I am convinced.

People speak about this as if not bailing out Detroit means automobile production in America ends. That’s not what failing to bailout Detroit means. Not intervening now would mean these automakers would enter bankruptcy. And bankruptcy means the assets of these dinosaurs get reorganized: Someone else buys these companies, at a price the market sets, and runs them profitably, because of the price the market set.

Obviously, that change would not be painless. And I’m all for minimizing the pain where the pain is doing no good — with workers, or others depending upon these industries. But I’m against interventions designed to minimize the pain where the pain would do good — by radically changing how that industry is managed. The whole justification for insanely high executive compensation is, in part, so they can weather such storms. I don’t see why the government should be in the business of building safety nets for the (relatively) well off.

“But what if foreign car companies buy American car companies?”

So what. I just don’t get this fear. We live in a global economy. If you want to own Toyota, buy Toyota stock. In the vast majority of cases (meaning there are exceptions I’d be willing to consider), the place of incorporation of a company should mean squat little to these sorts of issues. Or better, the ability of the company to build and manage production should matter much more.