This is a brief interview with Lawrence Lessig at this year's Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. I asked Lessig some questions about Change-Congress.org: an online, participatory tagging tool to encourage reform and transparency in the US Congress. Here is the description of the tool from the Change-Congress.org web site:
Change Congress is a movement to build support for basic reform in how our government functions. Using our tools, both candidates and citizens can pledge their support for basic changes to reduce the distorting influence of money in Washington. Our community will link candidates committed to a reform with volunteers and contributors who support it.
Earlier that day Lessig participated in a press conference with Free Press for an initiative named Internet For Everyone: a coalition of public interest and industry groups dedicated to open, universal, and affordable broadband access. This initiative is best described on the InternetForEveryone.org site:
InternetforEveryone.org is a national initiative of public interest, civic and industry groups that are working to see that the Internet continues to drive U.S. economic growth and prosperity.
Interview with Lawrence Lessig
Tim O'Brien: How has the participation level been so far?
Lessig: So we're just beginning to build the tools that are going to bring people in to do the work that we think is necessary. The first thing we laid out was a way to take your own pledge as a citizen or as a member of Congress or as a candidate for Congress, and the second stage will be tools to enable people to tag people you know to say that this Representative supports public funding and this Representative doesn't support public funding. We've just begun to pull people in to use those tools. You know, like any of these sites there's a slow uptake initially and we're finding ways to feed the attention so that we can get some real activity around it.
TO: Speaking of the slow uptake, are you relying on an organic strategy for marketing? Are you spending any money on trying to get this in front of people who might not normally see it?
Lessig: We're not spending money on the marketing of it. It is--it's certainly organic in that sense; although we're spending money to figure out how best to architect it so that you actually get tools that people will want to play with and want to use. There's a game to play of not going too quickly because you want to make sure you've got that structure that you really want and if you go slowly then you can be changing things without worrying about doing lots of work that's already been done, so that's been our strategy so far.
TO: It's an entirely non-partisan effort; is that true?
Lessig: Right; I mean we--the mix of issues we're talking about will bring in people from all perspectives and that's fundamental to what we're talking about because my view is that unless you have bipartisan support for this type of change it will never happen.
TO: Is there any worry that your tool might be co-opted by the actual campaigns themselves?
Lessig: It's a worry; it's a concern and you know what we're doing is staying as far away from that as we can but we can't control how the tool ultimately gets used and if it becomes a point of competition in a campaign then that's actually better for the issue. So--and one of our first candidates who won a Primary it was in a Maine district where there were two candidates who had taken Change Congress pledges and that became a focus of some of the debate inside the district and then that might be useful across the country to get people to pay attention to this issue.
TO: Have you had any feedback from the candidates or from the members of Congress themselves about the effort?
Lessig: Well the candidates are very eager because this is the way to get attention to what they're doing--their challenge is, and you know especially when we roll out the funding component of this, it will be very interesting to them to raise money. Members in Congress typically are more conservative about this because especially in the public funding issue there's an anxiety that--that will increase the power of challengers to defeat incumbents... that explains the biggest reason for the slowdown on this.
TO: Okay; in terms of the oversight do you find yourselves having to police the tags or are the tags completely free? I mean can I go in and put a tag you know "crook" for someone in bed with the oil executives?
Lessig: Well so the tags are reviewed so there's an administrator for different regions and then are authorized after they have been made, so it's not completely open to make any change you want and the tagging that we're looking for is tagging around the four issues that we've identified right now so there's a process to include--to verify that we've got some real veracity in what--in what's being produced.
TO: In terms of the Free Internet initiative, one of the cynical reactions to the effort is there are lots of places in the country where access to the internet might not be the primary concern, access, you know, in a very high-crime portion of the inner-city. Could you give us a sense of what your reaction is to a statement like that?
Lessig: Yeah; I mean I think it's absolutely true that internet access can't be thought of as the most important problem in the world but it's an infrastructure point. So if you could build this infrastructure and commit to building the infrastructure it helps solve a whole bunch of other problems that are pretty critical. So take your high crime example; if there were much better infrastructure for internet and even in high crime areas it would facilitate better police response, it would facilitate better monitoring, so that you avoid the kind of crime, so it would contribute to actually increasing the value of the area. Now I think--this is similar to the point about Change Congress, you know; I made the analogy in my speech to an alcoholic who you know has--might be losing his job, losing his wife, losing his liver and those are really critical problems but we know until he solves the alcoholism he's not going to solve any of those problems at all. And the same thing with you know in the Change Congress move; until we solve the problem of the corruption of the way Congress functions we're not going to solve these other more important problems. So I think it--you have to be able to recognize some issues are fundamental to solving other problems and I think that's the objective of the internet. The internet is infrastructure; it supports lots of other social and economic innovation and creativity and we've got to find ways to build upon it much more successfully than we have.
TO: In terms of what's at stake in this next Election cycle, what's at stake in terms of the rulings of the Supreme Court over the next four, eight, ten years, the legislation that might be coming down the road--what's at stake for the internet in this next Election?
Lessig: Well I think there's a fundamental decision that will be made in this Election about the philosophy that will guide the next generation of the internet. John McCain has signaled very clearly that he's going to continue the philosophy of what I refer to as a kind of Neanderthal philosophy that the government has no essential role in this essential infrastructure. And that means basically privatizing the infrastructure to the interest of a increasingly small number of infrastructure providers. And the Obama platform is fundamentally committed not to displacing private interest but to complimenting private interest with other interests which are also essential to the internet's future. So social interest and public interest and cultural interest that compliment the commercial interest; and so I think that an Obama Administration will appoint people and drive for regulation that guarantees this wider range of objectives that's achieved by this infrastructure. So just like we didn't build the high--the national highway system simply to serve GM's cars or to serve Ford-cars but to build it to support a wide range of uses, some commercial, some non-commercial and the same thing with the electricity grid and the same thing with every single infrastructure we've built. That's the way I think we'll think about the internet--that it serves many different objectives--some private, some not, and the government needs to make sure it can serve all of them well.
Transcript provided by: Shelley Chance (www.prodocservices.com)
PHOTO CREDIT: Picture of Lessig taken by Robert Scoble during a lecture at Stanford. Photo used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Original photo can be found on Flickr. (Read Scoble's blog: Scobleizer)