Larry Lessig is an accomplished author, lawyer, and professor, and until recently, was one of the leading active public intellectuals in the Internet space. But as I wrote in my review of his last book (Is Our Republic Lost?), in the past few years Lessig has changed his focus from Internet law to reforming our federal government.
But that doesn’t mean Lessig has stopped thinking about our industry, as the dialog below will attest. Our conversation came about last month after I finished reading Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2. The original book, written in 1999, is still considered an authoritative text on how the code of computing platforms interacts with our legal and social codes. In 2006, Lessig “crowdsourced” an update to his book, and released it as “Version 2.0.” I’d never read the updated work (and honestly didn’t remember the details of the first book), so finally, six years later, I dove in again.
It’s a worthy dive, but not an easy one. Lessig is a lawyer by nature, and his argument is laid out like proofs in a case. Narrative is sparse, and structure sometimes trumps writing style. But his essential point – that the Internet is not some open “wild west” destined to always be free of regulation, is soundly made. In fact, Lessig argues, the Internet is quite possibly the most regulable technology ever invented, and if we don’t realize that fact, and protect ourselves from it, we’re in for some serious pain down the road. And for Lessig, the government isn’t the only potential regulator. Instead, Lessig argues, commercial interests may become the most pervasive regulators on the Internet.
Indeed, during the seven years between Code’s first version and its second, much had occurred to prove Lessig’s point. But even as Lessig was putting the finishing touches on the second version of his manuscript, a new force was erupting from the open web: Facebook. And a year after that, the iPhone redefined the Internet once again.
In Code, Lessig enumerates several examples of how online services create explicit codes of control – including the early AOL, Second Life, and many others. He takes the reader though important lessons in understanding regulation as more than just governmental – explaining normative (social), market (commercial), and code-based (technological) regulation. He warns that once we commit our lives to commercial services that hold our identity, a major breach of security will most likely force the government into enacting overzealous and anti-constitutional measures (think 9/11 and the Patriot Act). He makes a case for the proactive creation of an intelligent identity layer for the Internet, one that might offer just the right amount of information for the task at hand. In 2006, such an identity layer was a controversial idea – no one wanted the government, for example, to control identity on the web.
But for reasons we’re still parsing as a culture, in the six years since the publication of Code v2, nearly 1 billion of us have become comfortable with Facebook as our defacto identity, and hundreds of millions of us have become inhabitants of Apple’s iOS.
Instead of going into more detail on the book (as I have in many other reviews), I thought I’d reach out to Lessig and ask him about this turn of events. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our dialog. I think you’ll find it provocative.
As to the book: If you consider yourself active in the core issues of the Internet industry, do yourself a favor and read it. It’s worth your time.
Q: After reading your updated Code v2, which among many other things discusses how easily the Internet might become far more regulated than it once was, I found myself scribbling one word in the margins over and over again. That word was “Facebook.”
You and your community updated your 1999 classic in 2006, a year or two before Facebook broke out, and several years before it became the force it is now. In Code you cover the regulatory architectures of places where people gather online, including MUDS, AOL, and the then-hot darling known as Second Life. But the word Facebook isn’t in the text.
What do you make of Facebook, given the framework of Code v2?
Lessig: If I were writing Code v3, there’d be a chapter — right after I explained the way (1) code regulates, and (2) commerce will use code to regulate — titled: “See, e.g., Facebook.” For it strikes me that no phenomena since 2006 better demonstrates precisely the dynamic I was trying to describe. The platform is dominant, and built into the platform are a million ways in which behavior is regulated. And among those million ways are 10 million instances of code being use to give to Facebook a kind of value that without code couldn’t be realized. Hundreds of millions from across the world live “in” Facebook. It more directly (regulating behavior) than any government structures and regulates their lives while there. There are of course limits to what Facebook can do. But the limits depend upon what users see. And Facebook has not yet committed itself to the kind of transparency that should give people confidence. Nor has it tied itself to the earlier and enabling values of the internet, whether open source or free culture.
Q: Jonathan Zittrain wrote his book two years after Code v2, and warned of non-generative systems that might destroy the original values of the Internet. Since then, Apple iOS (the “iWorld”) and Facebook have blossomed, and show no signs of slowing down. Do you believe we’re in a pendulum swing, or are you more pessimistic – that consumers are voting with their dollars, devices, and data for a more closed ecosystem?
Lessig: The trend JZ identified is profound and accelerating, and most of us who celebrate the “free and open” net are simply in denial. Facebook now lives oblivious to the values of open source software, or free culture. Apple has fully normalized the iNannyState. And unless Google’s Android demonstrates how open can coexist with secure, I fear the push away from our past will only continue. And then when our i9/11 event happens — meaning simply a significant and destructive cyber event, not necessarily tied to any particular terrorist group — the political will to return to control will be almost irresistible.
The tragedy in all this is that it doesn’t have to be this way. If we could push to a better identity layer in the net, we could get both better privacy and better security. But neither side in this extremist’s battle is willing to take the first step towards this obvious solution. And so in the end I fear the extremists I like least will win.
Q: You seem profoundly disappointed in our industry. What can folks who want to make a change do?
Lessig: Not at all. The industry is doing what industry does best — doing well, given the rules as they are. What industry is never good at (and is sometimes quite evil at) is identifying the best mix of rules. Government is supposed to do something with that. Our problem is that we have today such a fundamentally dysfunctional government that we don’t even recognize the idea that it might have a useful role here. So we get stuck in these policy-dead-ends, with enormous gains to both sides left on the table.
And that’s only to speak about the hard problems — which security in the Net is. Much worse (and more frustrating) are the easy problems which the government also can’t solve, not because the answer isn’t clear (again, these are the easy problems) but because the incumbents are so effective at blocking the answer that makes more sense so as to preserve the answer that makes them more dollars. Think about the “copyright wars” — practically every sane soul is now focused on a resolution of that war that is almost precisely what the disinterested souls were arguing a dozen years ago (editor’s note: abolishing DRM). Yet the short-termism of the industry wouldn’t allow those answers a dozen years ago, so we have had an completely useless war which has benefited no one (save the lawyers-as-soldiers in that war). We’ve lost a decade of competitive innovation in ways to spur and spread content in ways that would ultimately benefit creators, because the dinosaurs owned the lobbyists.
I could have gone on for some time with Lessig, but I wanted to stop there, and invite your questions in the comments section. Lessig is pretty busy with his current work, which focuses on those lobbyists and the culture of money in Congress, but if he can find the time, he’ll respond to your questions in the comments below, or to me in email, and I’ll update the post.
Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)
In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)