ABA Techshow

Regulators Ignoring Internet's Real Effects, Lessig Says, and Free Exchange Suffers

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Larry Lessig’s presentation at ABA Techshow.

Although patently obvious to innovators like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Napster’s Sean Parker and IP geolocation pioneer Cyril Houri, most regulators refuse to accept that the Internet has fundamentally changed the exchange of shared content, says ABA Techshow 2011 keynoter Larry Lessig.

This mindset to force regulation without regard for the potential to implement new market, architectural and social norms is ineffective, inefficient and naive, the Harvard professor said in his official Techshow address on Monday.

“Our first instinct is to invoke the law quite forcefully,” Lessig says, citing the reaction of regulators to slap music pirates—most often children and teens—with hard-line copyright infringement suits rather than accept that file sharing is the reality of the Net. “The right instinct would be to modify the law and the market to reflect the new ways innovation and technology are being used, while also making sure artists are getting paid.”

He sums up the power of the Web and the frustration of that power in the title of his speech: “Code Is Law, Does Anyone Get It Yet?”

“The law needs to deregulate a certain area of culture in order to effectively regulate where it should properly be applied,” Lessig says. Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard Law School, Lessig devoted much of his career to issues of law and technology, though his current efforts have moved to changing the motivation of regulators like the U.S. Congress.

For Lessig, the biggest policy problem concerning Internet regulation—whether it’s music-sharing or the dissemination of diplomatic cables via Wiki Leaks—resides in the reality that wealthy campaign financiers, including record labels and copyright holders, can influence the government far greater than the average citizen.

To that end, in 2008 Lessig co-founded the grassroots organization Rootstrikers, which aims to fight the corrupting influence of money in politics. One goal of the movement is the formation of a general purpose fund for federal elections, diminishing the dominance of corporate funders in the government process.

“The vast majority of people don’t care [about campaign funding] because they don’t think anything can be done about it,” Lessig asserts. “In order for us to answer question of whether code is law,” he says, we first need to get representative democracy back.

Last updated at 1:07 p.m. Thursday to add the audio and slides from Lessig’s presentation.

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