Net thinker Lessig sees corporate and government threats to internet

Article by Jean-Jacques Subrenat.

A convergence of interests between corporations and some governments is threatening core principles on which the internet was founded, leading thinker on internet governance Lawrence Lessig has told a Paris conference.

Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard University, spoke at the Le Monde Festival in Paris on September 24. He has been a leading thinker on the openness of the internet and the protection of free speech. The points he discussed with Le Monde journalist Samuel Laurent, and in the ensuing Q&A session with the public, are as relevant as ever in a world where corporations are taking greater control over the Net and where some governments are challenging the original vision of an open and accessible network.

Lawrence Lessig

The U.S. today: technology, market, democracy

Lessig said he had viewed the technology underlying the internet as an enabler, in such a way that in the U.S: ”Liberals could actually be told about norms, and conservatives about rights.”

Referring to his early years as a lawyer on property laws, he said he realized that losing copyright cases had led him to pursue legal challenges with a low probability of success because that allowed him to raise awareness on larger issues. Going public about the absurdity of certain laws rendered more visible the central issue of equal rights, he said.

This provided Lessig with the opportunity to remind the public that if the U.S. is indeed founded on a body of law, ”it is also based on the fundamental value of democracy.” Lessig said it was that thinking that led him to launch the concept of Creative Commons and other projects centered on citizens and internet users.

Laurent asked Lessig about the media scene in the U.S., the respective weight of technology and market, and the pervasive role of social media. For Lessig, the current media scene is characterized by market segmentation, where specific voter constituencies are catered for by separate channels, such as Fox and Breitbart for Trump supporters. He said this split led to a fundamental question: Can democracy be upheld, when information is meted out in very different ways? In response, Lessig underlined the need for ”reflective democracy” in the U.S.

A member of the public asked if private code was compatible with democracy. Lessig remarked that if one recognizes regulation as legal and necessary, then well-designed code could help implement fairer laws and regulations.

Commenting on the 2016 presidential campaign in the U.S. (in which he stood for the Democratic Party’s nomination), Lessig said Hillary Clinton came across as someone who seriously sought to change government policies to achieve improvements. However, her blind spot was failing to realize the deep-seated and wide mistrust toward the U.S. government and to gauge the need for profound reform.

Whereas the fundamental challenge today was to ensure equality and democracy, policies were being defined and implemented in the opposite direction, he said. For example, in his view, President Trump is handing over effective control of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to the very companies which are supposed to be regulated by that body. He also noted the irony of Congress curtailing the privacy of ordinary citizens whilst lobbyists circling the White House were protected from being revealed ”because their privacy must be upheld.”

Lessig pointed out another trend he worried about being amplified by social media, namely Twitter. Messages were circulated immediately, without editorial filters ensuring that facts were checked and claims found to be correct. Both Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump were regular users of Twitter. However, in President Trump’s case, his propensity to govern by tweeting was particularly worrying because his messages are not subject to informed mediation, Lessig suggested.

Unregulated or regulated internet?

Asked if the United Nations Organization could be called upon to guarantee rights and freedoms on the internet, Lessig considered it quite improbable, one reason being the lack of consensus among the array of countries in the organization, not least the U.S. under its current president. He added that the UN does not dispose of any powers to enforce democratic principles across its membership and that the worldwide internet user community has neither the legislation nor the infrastructure to enforce those democratic principles.

To a participant’s question about the efficacy of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in keeping the internet as a space of liberty, Lessig replied that this international forum, under the auspices of the United Nations, had progressively succumbed to business and other corporate lobbies. As a result, it did not play a significant role with regards to the fundamental questions affecting freedom of speech, protection of personal data, and democratic governance of the Internet.

Questioned on whether the European Union directives aimed at protecting privacy on the internet would prove effective, Lessig saw an analogy between this issue and copyright. He considered that it would be a strategic error to only consider the data aspect where ”protecting data as an object leads to an incomplete approach”, in which the contents may be protected to the detriment of a higher level of rights.

Beyond nation-states?

A member of the audience remarked that while everyone was aware of the global power and influence of the GAFA corporations (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple), much less was known of their Chinese counterparts BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent). Some observers believe that these economic superpowers will  quite naturally evolve into quasi-states, issuing regulations, and even granting ”virtual citizenship”. In response, Lessig pointed out that while we are aware of the degree of control exercised on the internet throughout China by its Communist Party, much less is known about its involvement in “BAT” outside China. Explaining this effect using the analogy of global warming, where China’s extensive use of coal contributes to global levels of climate change, Lessig said he thought that BAT would probably evolve into global players like GAFA.

The need for awareness

Towards the end of their one-hour conversation, Laurent asked Lessig for his views on future developments of the internet. Lessig recounted a trip he made as a student in the 1980s. Travelling in what was still the USSR on a train from Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) to Moscow, he had a conversation with a man seated in the same carriage. Learning that Lessig was from the U.S, the man claimed that Russians were more thoroughly informed than Westerners. ‘How so?’ asked Lessig. ‘Well, you in the U.S. think you are well informed because you have wide access, and you believe everything you read. But we in Russia know that all the stuff we read is untrue, so as a result individuals put in much more personal research, and that in turn leads to awareness”.

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