TCS Daily

Lawrence Lessig, Cyber-Attorney

By James Freeman - March 6, 2000 12:00 AM

The great thing about the Internet right now is that most people still don't really understand how it works. So if you can just learn a few catchy techno-phrases, people will think you really know what you're talking about. In the case of Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig, an adviser to the judge in the Microsoft case, highly polished geek-speak has proven extremely useful. Reporters have become convinced that he's some kind of libertarian citizen of the New Economy, instead of a left-wing lawyer in New England.

Lessig has become an influential voice in the tech policy debate, and there's a recurring, even predictable, theme to his work. He likes to tell other people what to do with their property. Music companies need to stop bitching about copyright theft and embrace the openness of the Internet. Film and television companies are too zealous in fighting unauthorized use of their products. Apple Computer is the bad guy because it didn't want people trashing the company in an online forum it hosted. Cable operators have to let other companies use the cable network on terms set by the government. Microsoft has to design its products to accommodate competitors.

I actually agree with Lessig on some of the tactics of entertainment companies in battling piracy. They had some teenager arrested just for creating the technology to make unauthorized copies of DVDs, not for actually making the copies or trying to sell them. But we should always remember that copyrighted works belong to their authors. And just because a lot of people think it's fun to download songs from the Net without paying for them, that doesn't mean they have some cyber-right to free music. Similarly, Microsoft shareholders own Windows. Real estate on that desktop is not a public asset to be allocated by lawyers and lobbyists.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the last decade, Lessig can't seem to understand how the online world can thrive without new laws. When people oppose regulation of broadband networks, Lessig responds, "This debate won't go anywhere if we can't get beyond this high school way of talking about 'regulation.'" First of all, if we're talking about creating new rules for the Internet, I sure hope this debate won't go anywhere. But if only it were true that high schools taught kids to be suspicious of regulation, we'd avoid a lot of problems. Most people have to get out into the wealth-producing parts of our economy before they understand the burden of bureaucracy. Perhaps someday Lessig will join them.

In the meantime, he's criticizing AT&T for opposing forced access to its cable networks. "Cable monopolies were made by governments. AT&T was created by a court. It's a bit late to be discovering libertarianism," he says. I disagree. It's never too late to embrace the free market. There's no bad time to join the competitive marketplace and no one is beyond redemption. In fact, I'm still holding out hope for Larry.

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