What Does Silicon Valley Want from Washington?

Fast Interview: Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig talks about his aborted run for Congress, the threat of a catastrophic network event, and who he’s supporting for president.


One of the nation’s leading authorities on Internet law, Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig recently set a new standard for campaigning at cyber speed. In February, he announced an exploratory bid to fill the Congressional seat of the late Tom Lantos after a “Draft Lessig” movement sprang up on Facebook and elsewhere on the ‘net. Five days later, he pulled out of the race after deciding it was impossible to surmount the greater name recognition of his opponent in the Democratic primary. But Lessig isn’t done with politics: On March 20, he plans to appear at the National Press Club to roll out a beta website for his Change Congress movement. The site will ask politicians to pledge to give up PAC and lobbyist money, abolish earmarks, and support public financing of elections. He hopes the site will provide a directory of candidates who support campaign finance reform and a means for people to channel financial support to them.


Why so short a run?

I considered getting into this because once I mapped out the ideas behind this Change Congress movement there were an extraordinary number of people who said, “You should take this first step.” It’s one thing to live in the ivory tower and talk about how the world should be and another to do something to actually change it. That was a fair challenge. What we did was go out and figure out whether it was feasible to run a campaign that would succeed in conveying the ideas of this movement in 30 days. The experts who know something about how all this works said that was impossible. Rather than burdening this new movement with a substantial defeat I decided to focus on pushing the movement forward.

In your blog, you mentioned talking to another candidate who was one of your models, Bill Foster, the physicist who won a special election to fill former majority leader Dennis Hastert’s seat in Illinois. You wrote that Foster spent seven hours a day fundraising.

I actually don’t think fundraising in this particular case would have been a problem. The real problem was the practical one of starting with basically zero name recognition — I’ve been living in this district since I came to Stanford, but I’ve never done anything in public life in this district — against an extraordinarily popular state senator who has served in this district for 30 years. There’s a physics to that and we couldn’t change the laws of nature.

What does this mean for the Change Congress movement?

Both parties should recognize there’s something broken in the way Congress functions. What’s broken is the improper influence of money. Not in the traditional sense of bribery or corruption or the idea that Congressmen are trying to feather their nests, but in the much more subtle, more insidious way of constantly focusing on how they raise money to get elected. There are an extraordinary number of examples where public policy just gets fundamentally skewed. The most dramatic example is global warming. The influence of money makes it impossible for Congress to focus on issues that are important. Just like an alcoholic who might be losing his job, losing his wife, or losing his liver has a lot of very serious problems, but the first problem he has to solve is his alcoholism. That’s what we’re facing here — the first problem we have to solve is getting money out of the structure of influence.


You see changing Congress as a more fundamental issue than the war in Iraq or the deficit?

Exactly right. We need to get people to understand there’s a more fundamental problem and we need to fix it. Fortunately — and this is something our poll data demonstrated — you don’t have to do a lot to get people to connect to this issue. Everybody has this view that there’s something deeply corrupt about the way Washington functions — actually, unfairly. They have a much more negative view than is actually true. What they don’t have is a vision of how to fix it.

What does Silicon Valley need from Washington that it’s not getting?

The best example is network neutrality. I don’t think people yet understand how destructive the uncertainty around network neutrality is to venture capital in Silicon Valley. Venture capitalists ask themselves the question, Does it make sense to invest in this new technology, which we know will not be anything in the next three to five years, when the network owner, Comcast, can pull the plug on the technology because there’s no network neutrality regulation? That means venture capitalists have to accept much higher risk than they would if we had rational public policy. So a bunch of projects can’t get funded because of that issue.

What’s the next most important issue right now in cyberlaw?

Another extraordinarily important issue is going to be how to deal with the increasing security threat — the amazing way the net has been compromised by organized crime — in a way that doesn’t destroy the privacy and potential of the Internet. There’s a total failure of this administration to address those issues in any way that would increase security. We’ve got to figure that out now because there’s going to be an event like 9-11. I don’t mean Al Qaeda, I mean a catastrophic network event. When that happens, there’s going to be a scurry to radically change the Internet to deal with this threat. If the only people in there (government) are people who think the Internet is just a bunch of tubes, then they’re not going to address that threat in any kind of a useful way.


What needs to be done?

Policy makers need to recognize there’s a wide range of choices between how you implement security and how you protect privacy. There are technical ways to increase the security of the network, to make it easier to distinguish between trusted entities and non-trusted entities, without forcing everybody to give up privacy. People from the USA who say there’s a tradeoff between security and privacy, you either are lying — or you don’t know what you’re talking about.

How do people in Silicon Valley react when you tell them that you clerked for Antonin Scalia?

Justice Scalia hired me as his token liberal in the chamber. If I were running, I don’t think people would care much about that. They would be caring more about the issues I’ve been fighting for.

Scalia hired you just to have someone to joust with?

He understood that I was not the standard conservative clerk. He wanted that for the best possible reason. A justice has four clerks and if you want to make sure you get it right, you want a diversity of clerks because what’s obvious to one side is not so obvious to the other side. He encouraged that kind of debate so he would know what the right answer was.


Who will you support in the presidential race?

I’ve endorsed Barack Obama. He and I were colleagues at the University of Chicago way back in the early 1990s so I have known him a long, long time, and I thought the world of him from the beginning. I’ve evaluated a lot of the tech policies of the candidates in this presidential election and his were the strongest in my view.

What impressed you?

Obama’s policy is balanced and smart. His “net neutrality” platform is effective while not extreme. His mandate that government make its data accessible freely and in a machine-readable way shows a deep understanding of how innovation happens on the ‘net. And the notion of a Chief Technology Officer is extraordinarily exciting, creating a forum for a kind of policy understanding never seen in the federal government.