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Published: April 10, 2002

 
 

Lawrence Lessig: The Thought Leader Interview

The Stanford University law professor and cyberadvocate redefines the parameters of the Internet.

Photography by John Blaustein
Amid the chorus of techies and Web heads proclaiming that cyberspace is inherently immune to regulation, a lone voice has consistently insisted quite the opposite. Indeed, Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig has written that the Internet is rapidly succumbing to a triad of ill-considered law, restrictive technology, and commercial monopolization that threatens its very existence as a platform for freedom, innovation, and growth.

Powerful interests seek to control how and what is distributed over the Internet. This control, Professor Lessig argues, will destroy the platform that gave rise to new forms of businesses (like Amazon.com and eBay) and new forms of expression (from Salon.com to Usenet newsgroups), unless forceful countermeasures are taken soon.

Professor Lessig’s outspoken commentary has earned him both admirers and detractors. Stewart Brand, founder of the Well, an early Internet community, has said, “Lawrence Lessig is a James Madison of our time, crafting the lineaments of a well-tempered cyberspace. Like Madison, Lessig is a model of balance, judgment, ingenuity, and persuasive argument.”

But Professor Lessig was dismissed as special master in the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust case against Microsoft after the software company claimed he was biased. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson was also believed to have based his decision to split the company in two on a friend-of-the-court brief later written by Professor Lessig. That decision was subsequently reversed by the appellate court.

Professor Lessig refutes the accepted wisdom that the Internet is an organic and uncontrollable medium. To the contrary, he argues that the Net owes its very existence and continued viability to a fragile set of freedoms that protect its openness in the three dimensions of architecture, infrastructure, and content. Each is under constant and insidious attack.

Professor Lessig recently talked with strategy+business, at his office at Stanford Law School, about the ideas and arguments from his new book, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (Random House, 2001), and his vision for a future of competition that will realize the Net’s full potential as a catalyst for creativity and innovation.

S+B: Many CEOs ask why the commercialization and closing of the Internet is a threat to the way they do business, or important to them in other ways.

LESSIG: The fundamental reason to be worried about the Internet changing is if it alters the environment for innovation, it will limit corporate growth in the future. To the extent we’ve seen a slowdown, I think a substantial amount can be attributed to the restrictions I’m seeing. The CEO would be concerned about a new tax on the Internet; these are equivalent effects from a different source. I believe the slowdown in the technology sector can be explained by the increasing regulation, if you include copyright. It certainly has changed the competitive horizon and undermined the opportunity for lots of innovation.

S+B: In your new book, The Future of Ideas, the subtitle reads The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, evoking Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. Is what’s happening with the Internet a “tragedy”?

LESSIG: There is a double sense of tragedy. One that I reject, and one that I embrace. Tragedies occur when resources held in common get overused. If everybody’s cattle consume a pasture, at some point the cattle will overuse the pasture, so there will not be enough for later. Leaving the resource (a pasture) open for everyone produces this tragedy. The standard response is to enclose the resource to ensure it is not overused.

But there is no tragedy with resources that economists call nonrivalrous — resources that create no rivalry between users. With nonrivalrous resources, your using that resource doesn’t deplete the resource; there’s just as much left over afterward as there was before. Placing those resources into a commons produces no tragedy.

 
 
 
 
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