NZ needs to protect itself from US corruption: Harvard professor

NetHui keynote Lawrence Lessig delivers stirring defence of 'read-write' web

New Zealand should be protected from US law and politics which are tainted by commercial special interests, says Harvard University law professor Lawrence Lessig.

Delivering a keynote address to the NetHui in Auckland last Friday, copyright activist Lessig skilfully combined his new interest in combatting alleged corruption in the US lawmaking system with arguments for copyright reform which he knew would appeal particularly to his New Zealand audience in the wake of the much criticised Copyright (Infringing File-Sharing) Act.

Beginning with French 18th-century political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville’s evaluation of the US Constitution as being based on a “general equality of condition” among the people, Lessig went on to argue that “netizens”, the citizens of the internet, seek to put this equality into practice. The net is a great leveller, making it easier for everyone to engage with anyone, regardless of “wealth, status and connections”.

Engagement expresses itself as a “read-write culture” of user creation alongside consumption, succeeding the “read-only” consumer culture that Lessig sees as dominating the 20th century.

This is seen by young internet users particularly as including rights to adapt others’ work creatively; Lessig demonstrated this on video with a movie/song remix and its various reinterpretations in the context of particular communities around and outside the US.

“Read-write” engagement is equally obvious in politics, says Lessig, showing a faith in the much-criticised assumption that internet communication was a major factor in causing and facilitating revolutionary fervour in the Middle East and North Africa.

The internet has enabled bad things as well as good, Lessig concedes, but US lawmakers and vested interests have reacted to the bad “insanely stupidly” by enforcing and strengthening law as though the internet had changed nothing.

Rather lawmakers and affected industries should accept the change and work out new ways of dealing with the problems – new ways of compensating artists for their work without inhibiting its sharing; new ways of coping with inevitable leaks of confidential information while minimising the actual harm done.

New Zealand, said Lessig, is a well-functioning democracy, where the force of public opinion had fixed mistakes such as excessive deregulation in the broadband market – arriving eventually at such initiatives as open access and Telecom separation. The US has persisted with a deregulatory stance, he said and the results have shown in a slippage of the US and a rise of New Zealand in measures of broadband penetration.

The US Federal Communications Commission, in its national broadband plan, ignored the neutral study it had commissioned and plainly stated that lobbying pressure from monopolistic interests is too strong to permit an open-access broadband policy.

“The effect of special interests in US politics is pervasive and corrupting”, Lessig says, The US is not, in his view, a “high-functioning democracy” as New Zealand is.

Lawmakers listen not to the people in general, but primarily to funders of their campaigns to be re-elected.

New Zealand’s government has, for example, adopted the liberal scheme of Creative Commons licensing which Lessig helped found.

“We need you to resist our extremism,” Lessig concluded. Until the US does reform in a more liberal and inclusive spirit, he said, New Zealand should “protect yourselves from us/US.” The pun was reinforced on his slide by inserting the dots in “U.S.” and colouring the letters red and blue.

The presentation was illustrated in typical Lessig style, with rapid-fire slides containing a short phrase or in some cases one word.

He was received with a predictable standing ovation, but delegates said afterwards the event had been surrounded with a powerful “field” of Lessig’s charisma and reputation which inhibited criticism. The talk, available on YouTube video should be reviewed in a more careful analytical spirit, they say.

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