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 / Second Quarter 2002 / Issue 27(originally published by Booz & Company)


Lawrence Lessig: The Thought Leader Interview

S+B: So you’re saying that the technical choices made by the Internet’s creators, for whatever reasons they might have had, resulted in a platform uniquely suited to innovation.

LESSIG: Yes. If the Internet’s creators had produced a closed proprietary network, this kind of development wouldn’t have occurred. Part of the reason I wrote this book was to try to get people to focus on what it was about the Internet that produced the innovation and creativity that we saw. The thing that produced it was the extraordinary opportunity for lots of people to innovate there, as opposed to an architecture that gave the network the power to pick and choose.

S+B: It seems that you could almost make the case that every new medium — photography, FM radio, rock and roll — starts from a kind of primitive state where you have lots of innovation and creativity, but ultimately the medium becomes commercialized and more controlled. Is there something fundamentally different about the Internet?

LESSIG: You are right that we can see this pattern in a lot of contexts. Although in some of these contexts I think that there was a much stronger economic argument in favor of the concentration or the commercialization as you describe it. So I wouldn’t say that in each of these cases there was a conspiracy and now we see the results.

But the economic argument that justified these other concentrations does not justify concentration in the context of the Internet. Keeping a neutral platform here will induce extraordinary commercial and noncommercial engagement. Giving up that neutral platform will benefit some commercial innovation, but at the expense of a vast majority of opportunity. So whatever the justification for the enclosure movement in the past, I don’t think it is applicable to the Internet.

S+B: You devote quite a bit of space in the book to free software and the Open Source movement, which was initiated by Richard Stallman at MIT and accelerated by Linus Torvalds’s Linux. How close are the Open Source phenomenon and the Internet as a sustainable commons?

LESSIG: I think they are intimately connected. There’s a critical mass that’s necessary to make a large Open Source project, or a large free software project, function. And the critical mass is enabled by the technical infrastructure of the Internet. This infrastructure is neutral and open for all sorts of people to participate in, so it’s just as easy for somebody in Europe to participate in this production process as it is for somebody in the United States. So the two go together.

S+B: What about the reverse? Is the Open Source community crucial to the Internet, or could it just as well run on Microsoft’s NT operating system, as much of it does, or Sun’s Solaris, which is pretty ubiquitous on the Internet?

LESSIG: The Open Source movement is critical to the Internet indirectly, not necessarily directly. It’s critical indirectly in that because of the Open Source movement, the proprietary platforms have a harder time making strategic barriers against new innovation. Now if these proprietary platforms were completely neutral, you could say it wouldn’t really matter so much. But there’s a competitive or strategic game for people to play based on a proprietary structure.

S+B: It is always in the interest of the incumbent to limit uncertainty, to avoid disruption, and the incumbents have all the resources. It almost seems inevitable that they win regardless of what might be best for innovation, or society as a whole.

LESSIG: Yes, incumbents have all the resources, but sometimes all the resources in the world aren’t enough to stop technological disruption. This is the optimists’ story — “they’ll never be able to stop it.” But I’m a pessimist about this. Sometimes they can’t stop it; some regimes won’t be able to survive new technologies. But there is a lot of damage that can be done in the interim. Even if they can’t stop change, they can slow it down in a way that really does set it off on a path that produces an outcome that is far less valuable than what we could have had.

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