Running for president: Lawrence Lessig Presidential Bid

Published: September 8, 2015

Running for president: Lawrence Lessig Presidential Bid, While the British commentariat is obsessing over Jeremy Corbyn, something interesting is afoot on the other side of the pond. Tomorrow, Larry Lessig will decide whether to run for president. It all depends on whether the Kickstarter fund launched by his supporters reaches $1m by Labor Day, which just happens to be tomorrow. When I last checked it was already up to $890,000, so it looks as though it will be: “Run, Lessig, run.”

“Larry who?” I hear you say. Lawrence Lessig is a professor at the Harvard Law School and one of his profession’s superstars. (He is also, incidentally, an alumnus of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he did an MA in philosophy in the mid-1980s.) A constitutional lawyer by background, he first trod the established path – University of Chicago law school, clerking for a brace of prominent judges (Richard Posner of the 7th circuit and then Antonin Scalia of the US supreme court), followed by professorial chairs at Harvard, Stanford and, for the second time, Harvard, where he is now director of the Safra Center for Ethics.

It was during Lessig’s rise that the internet went mainstream and he began to ponder what it might mean for society. He was one of the first legal scholars to appreciate that computer code and protocols might one day become prime determinants of human behaviour. From that came his first book, simply entitled Code.

But the 1990s also saw the outbreak of the copyright wars: the conflict between illicit file-sharing and the music industry, in which giant multimedia corporations (and a compliant US Congress) began honing the legal weapons with which to combat the threat. Lessig waded into this maelstrom with what programmers would call a “neat hack”: to use copyright law to define the conditions under which people could give away their creative works while retaining the degree of control that they desired. The result was Creative Commons, which he co-founded, and a role for Lessig as the internet’s most prominent scholarly activist.

It was the copyright wars that brought him into politics. In 1998, Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act (aka “the Mickey Mouse Extension Act”) to extend the copyright protection for corporate owners to 120 years. Lessig acted pro bono for a publisher, Eric Eldred, who challenged the constitutionality of the act, fought the case all the way to the supreme court – and lost. The experience brought him face to face with the grim reality: the compliance of US legislators towards corporate interests reflects the fact that they reward those who fund their election campaigns.

So Lessig pivoted to confront the problem that American democracy was being destroyed by the influence of money in its politics. And in recent decades, amplified by the “Citizens United” supreme court judgment that corporations could make unrestricted political donations, the condition has become pathological. Lessig analysed the problem in a book, Republic, Lost, and set out some ideas for practical remedial action.

Intellectually, he is always seeking ways to turn the adversary’s strengths against him. His first idea was to harness the Citizens United judgment to create a new “super PAC” (a type of political action committee) – Mayday.US – that would support politicians who campaigned against corporate interests. The PAC raised nearly $11m in 2014, but its plan of electing candidates friendly to campaign-finance reform turned out to be, at best, an honourable failure.

Last month, Lessig came up with a new idea: that he would seek the Democratic nomination for the 2016 presidential election if he could raise $1m by tomorrow. He added an original twist. If nominated, he would run on a single, overriding issue: getting a single bill – the Citizen Equality Act – through Congress. And if he were elected, once that was done, he would resign, enabling the vice president to become the next president.

Sounds daft? Sure. The probability of a Lessig presidency is lower than that of a Trump one. But it’s another neat hack. And as a way of raising the profile of the key issue in American politics, it has a touch of genius. We could use that kind of thinking over here. Run, Lessig, run.


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