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Lessig Slams Bovine Culture of Complacency


WebReview.com: September 6, 2001: WEB2001: Lessig Slams Bovine Culture of Complacency

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Law professor, author, and board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Lawrence Lessig presented his keynote speech "The Impact of Code and Law" at Friday's morning address of the WEB2001 conference. Lessig detailed the divide between the Internet-based culture of sharing and borrowing, and the incumbent culture of content ownership and control. He warned that the latter is threatening to overwhelm the former, leading to a "silent spring" for the Internet.

Lessig began by noting how the Internet, in contrast to the phone network, is "end-to-end", where the applications exist at the end edges of the network and the core of the network simply moves packets around. This decentralization, in addition to an open infrastructure, made the Internet a commons and enabled the tremendous innovation in applications running on it. Lessig noted that anyone who has written Web pages has viewed, learned from, and borrowed from the HTML source of other pages.

This well-balanced culture between controlled and freely shared content is now being gradually transformed, dominated by ownership and the control of content. On the infrastructure level, technologies like policy-based routing and content filtering are attempting to move the Internet to something more like cable TV. Meanwhile, the duration and scope of powers enjoyed by copyright owners are steadily increasing. Lessig blasted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for outlawing the circumvention of copyright controls. Even more chilling is the DMCA's effect on ISPs and Web hosting companies, inducing them to take down sites they host for fear of legal liability. What Lessig described as the corruption of the Internet is not a result of a conspiracy, but rather a society divided on the importance of freely shared versus tightly controlled content.

Using California as synecdoche for this divide, Lessig contrasted the north's tradition of free cultural exchange, as represented by the Silicon Valley, with the media mandarins of the south, represented by Hollywood. In the south, culture is property, and use of culture requires the permission of the owners. The sense is that proprietary control over ideas is a fundamental ingredient of innovation. The "NorCal" mentality of freely borrowing from, adding to, and transforming culture and ideas is well-suited to the digital age; it is also exactly how culture has evolved through human history until recently. Unfortunately, the content controllers, with their "plantation mentality" are more powerful, richer, and setting the terms of the debate between the two forces. Lessig pleaded with the audience to not let lawyers like himself control the debate, since the lawyers are only being paid to argue for cultural control and ownership. He offered radio as a cautionary tale to the audience. Wildly diverse and innovative in its early years, radio has become homogenized pablum controlled by corporate interests. It happened to radio, it can happen to the Internet.

In the question and answer session following his keynote, Lessig noted that this struggle is not along the traditional lines of right versus left. He reserved praise for Sen. Orrin Hatch, and noted that opposing excessive government, in this case in the form of increasingly oppressive copyright powers and ridiculous patents, should be a natural fit for Republicans. He cited government sales of radio frequency spectrum as the next big issue; technologies like 802.11b wireless Ethernet demonstrate the viability of the public sharing use of radio spectrum without centralized control. When asked about the chances of the courts overturning the DMCA, Lessig said that he was "cautiously optimistic" about the possibility of the 2600/DeCSS case being overturned on First Amendment grounds.

Lessig discounted the technocratic view that controls on content and ideas can be circumvented, saying that a small segment of the population may be capable of that, but humanity as a whole is a "bovine culture": large groups of mammals controlled by small fences. When an audience member suggested that Lessig was ducking the "what can we do about this" question, Lessig responded that the audience knew exactly what to do, but is too apathetic and complacent to do anything. To prove his point, he asked how many people wrote to their congressperson about these issues or donated to the EFF; virtually no one raised their hand on either count.

Moo to that.


Charlie is an independent consultant living in San Jose, CA. He writes for a number of open source and Internet related sites and publications on a regular basis.

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