Larry Lessig: Time to reject corporate influence on Washington

Net legal guru calls on politicians and citizens alike to support his "Change Congress" movement, which borrows approaches from Wikipedia and his own Creative Commons set-up.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
4 min read
Stanford law professor Larry Lessig speaks at the National Press Club in Washington about the launch of his grassroots "Change Congress" campaign. Anne Broache/CNET News.com

WASHINGTON--Iconic Internet law professor Larry Lessig may have cast off plans for a congressional bid of his own, but he still wants to turn the political process as we know it upside down.

No more money from corporate political action committees and lobbyists. No more earmarks to fund pet projects in federal spending bills. Public financing for all congressional campaigns. And throughout it all, transparency.

Those are the four pillars of Lessig's "Change Congress" movement, which he unveiled, along with a beta Web site, which he describes as a "mash-up applied to politics," at an event here Thursday afternoon. For the project, he has teamed up with Joe Trippi, best known as the national campaign manager for Democrat Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign and its pioneering use of online organizing.

None of his ideas, of course, are particularly new, which Lessig himself readily acknowledged. A number of organizations--including Ralph Nader's Public Citizen and the Sunlight Foundation, which sponsored his talk on Thursday--dedicate themselves exclusively to promoting government transparency. Projects like Open Secrets offer more readily searchable databases of political campaign contributions, while groups like Citizens Against Government Waste have made it a mission to expose congressional pork-barrel spending.

And even some politicians are already displaying interest in those topics. A number of congressional Republicans have been rallying for an earmark freeze. On the Democratic side, Senators Barack Obama (and, when he was in the race, former Sen. John Edwards) pledged not to accept presidential campaign contributions from registered lobbyists and PACs.

Lessig, who briefly flirted with running this year for the Silicon Valley seat vacated by the late Rep. Tom Lantos, said he's not trying to compete with existing efforts but to "complement" them.

"My claim here is not some simple claim against money or the importance of money," Lessig said, as he paged through slides containing key words ("dependence") and an occasional image (dollar bills, the U.S. Capitol). "We just need to recognize that money in certain places is destructive of trust."

It's not "personal corruption" he's after, either, as he said he considers the current Democratic Congress to be one of the least corrupt in history. Rather, it's an "institutional" corruption, which he said is exemplified, to name a few examples, by the sugar lobby's alleged influence on government nutritional guidelines, the pharmaceutical lobby's influence on federal drug approvals, and the energy lobby's influence on global warming policy. Key policy errors are being made because of this "economy of influence" and "improper dependence on money," Lessig charged.

"It's not a dependence that reveals itself in the way evil people act, but a dependence that corrupts even the way good people solve the problems they come to Washington to address," he said. "We need to solve this problem now."

Lessig even hit out at unnamed law-professor colleagues for "accepting money, hundreds of thousands of dollars to write these expert reports," saying he eschews discussing public policy matters "related to anyone who has ever compensated me." He recounted feeling more than a little resentment when, in an e-mail exchange with Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), the senator implied that Lessig's support for Net neutrality regulations stemmed from monetary nudging from the likes of Google, which was not the case.

The first "layer" of the Change Congress project is now live at its Web site. It allows politicians and citizens alike to sign up in support of one or more or the movement's four tenets and nab an icon and code to broadcast their support on their Web sites. The approach is modeled after Lessig's own Creative Commons licensing arrangement, in which content creators are free to customize the extent to which others can share and remix their works.

"We just need to recognize that money in certain places is destructive of trust."
--Larry Lessig

The site also houses a "sludge-colored" map on which users can click congressional districts and learn how much of an elected politico's political donations come from PACs.

In a second phase, Lessig plans to use Wikipedia-style tools to attract collaborators who work on discerning where various candidates and members of Congress stand on the movement's four principles. Those citizens will also ask the politicians to pledge their support formally, and they'll use that information to plot out, district by district, who's in and who's out. Lessig said he's going after the Wikipedia model of amassing information, mobilizing lots of people to share the research and advocacy in a "manageable, digestible, segmentable" way.

During the final phase, people will be asked to pledge money to candidates who have supported the Change Congress movement's priorities.

Lessig likened his vision to what an alcoholic's struggle for recovery. Sure, that person has to worry about resolving problems with his family, or his job, or his liver, but before he can face those things, he has to confront the alcoholism itself.

The way Lessig sees it, the nation's most important problems--global warming, education, and the Iraq war, to name a few--can't be remedied until "we solve this first problem, this dependence on money."