Friday, June 22, 2007

Lessig Takes on the Political Process

After spending the past decade redefining the academic landscape on intellectual property rights and driving forward the debate on law and technology, Larry Lessig has decided to move on to something new. His new project: to figure out why our political process doesn't work and try to fix it.

In Lessig's most reknowned case, Eldred v. Ashcroft, he argued to the Supreme Court that it made no sense for Congress to retroactively extend the duration of copyrights for works already in existence. You can't provide incentives, he argued, for someone to do something they've already done. He was, of course, absolutely right, but the Supreme Court decided it was Congress's call to make, not theirs. So now Lessig has turned his attention back to Congress, to figure out why it would create policy so obviously wrong. Lessig writes:
The answer is a kind of corruption of the political process. Or better, a "corruption" of the political process. I don't mean corruption in the simple sense of bribery. I mean "corruption" in the sense that the system is so queered by the influence of money that it can't even get an issue as simple and clear as term extension right. Politicians are starved for the resources concentrated interests can provide. In the US, listening to money is the only way to secure reelection. And so an economy of influence bends public policy away from sense, always to dollars.

More recently Lessig has been one of the key advocates for net neutrality, where much the same forces are at work. He notes that "our government can't understand basic facts when strong interests have an interest in its misunderstanding." So Lessig has decided to dedicate his next decade to trying to crack this problem.

Obviously it's a big problem, and, as Lessig acknowledges, he's hardly the first person to take it on. But I'm excited to see him try. While Lessig has largely won the battle on copyrights and technology as far as the academic debate goes, his work there has had few tangible results in our legal framework. This seems the obvious next step. If he can accomplish half as much in his new endeavor as he did in law and technology, it will be a great win for us all. I wish him the best of luck.

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