Harvard Law’s Lessig: “We are facing a bloody future for at least the next decade”

Net neutrality expert Larry Lessig on politics, the media, and the future

Lester Lawrence “Larry” Lessig III has an impressive moniker, but it’s far from the most notable thing about him. By rights, he should be a household name.

Currently the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, Larry is one of the world’s leading lights not only in law and ethics, but on net neutrality and the open internet too.

Lessig founded Creative Commons, the non-profit licensing scheme that allows people to make their work available to others without giving up their rights, and in doing so freed us all from looking at the same old stock images until we die of unoriginality.

In fact, two of the three images of Lessig used in this piece were made available free of charge through Creative Commons (the other was provided by him), and we’re using CC-BY to make all WikiTribune content available to republish.

He’s on the advisory board for the Sunlight Foundation, which applies the same ethos of openness to to government and politics. He founded the Centre for Internet and Society at Stanford. He clerked for Judge Richard Posner on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court. He’s won many awards, written many books, and was played by Doc Brown himself — Christopher Lloyd — in The West Wing.

As one of WikiTribune’s advisors, Larry kindly agreed to speak to us about the media, the internet, and their shared future.

Here’s our interview in full.

Image: Robert Scoble via Flickr Creative Commons

WikiTribune (WT): Larry — in your opinion, what are the main problems with current news reporting?

The main problem is that it is held hostage to the business model of the news outlets. If it doesn’t pay to present the truth, then competition will push too many to avoid presenting the truth. If it only pays to play to a partisan truth, then too many will play to that partisan truth. And unfortunately, given the rise in competition, for too many, presenting the truth, free of partisan spin, does not pay.

WT: WikiTribune will have community members alongside staff journalists editing, fact-checking and updating. Do you think this model will work?

No one can know, but we should certainly try. There are many who want to help build a more reliable foundation for the news. They are the same people who turn to Wikipedia to follow current events, or breaking news stories — because they know the norm of neutrality on that platform will create the normative pressure to be balanced and inclusive.

If there are enough of those people willing to do their part, then WikiTribune could be a perfect complement to ad-funded competitors.

“The advertising model for funding content has practically broken the web”

WT: Journalism has struggled to make money since the decline of print. Do you believe crowdfunding is the way forward?

I believe we need to try this alternative. The advertising model for funding content has practically broken the web — while creating all sorts of bad incentives for fake news to spread. We should encourage experiments that create different incentives — or at least that avoid the incentives to extremism or falsity.

WT: You recently wrote an explainer on impeachment in relation to President Trump. How much of a role do you believe misunderstanding and misinformation had in his election? How can we combat that for future elections?

2016 was the perfect storm for misinformation in politics. A huge proportion of people shifted their news consumption away from platforms with editors, to platforms (like Facebook) without editors. That shift created an obvious incentive for people to distort the truth, or excite partisan differences.

What we need going forward are institutions of veracity. That’s different from “truth”; it means simply a way to more easily identify the basis upon which claims are made. I don’t want Facebook to become Big Brother. But I do support a wide mix of efforts to help us isolate plainly crazy claims — like Pizzagate — from controversial claims that still have some foundation in reality.

“There are many cases where news outlets steer away from stories that might threaten the business interest of their advertisers.”

WT: You’ve frequently spoken about the corrupting power of money, particularly in relation to politics. Do you think the media should act as a watchdog for this, and to what extent do you think the media is in the same position itself?

Ad-funded media is subject to the same corrupting influence as privately-funded political campaigns. In my book Republic, Lost, I tell the story of cell phone companies threatening GQ if GQ ran a story about the safety of wireless technologies. And at the local level, there are many cases where news outlets steer away from stories that might threaten the business interest of their advertisers.

No one believes there is an effective “Chinese Wall” between editorial and advertising any more, except, perhaps, at the most prominent publications, like the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. Yet we need the confidence that the truth is being covered at every level of news reporting. We don’t have that now.

WT: What kinds of stories do you believe are under-reported right now? What would you like to see more of in the news?

Local government stories, covering corruption and influence in the way local government functions. This was a staple of journalism in the 20th century. Few can afford to cover it today.

Likewise, with long form investigative journalism. America needs more Amy Harmons, yet ad-funded news can’t afford the ones we have.

“We should not have to worry about whether the news we read has been compromised by the commercial interest of the news provider”

WT: WikiTribune will make all of its content available on a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license. As the founder of Creative Commons, is this the kind of use case you had in mind? Do you think more content should be available this way?

I am incredibly excited that the news WikiTribune will produce will be made available under the freest CC license. This is the kind of use we dreamed of. Yes, we need more of the content that depends upon the truth being made available in this way.

I don’t have a view that all music should be free. But I do believe we should not have to worry about whether the news we read has been compromised by the commercial interest of the news provider.

Image: Asadal via Flickr Creative Commons

WT: One of the biggest threats to journalism is often said to be the potential for prohibitively costly legal action, for instance the recent case against Gawker Media. Do you believe litigation is in some cases being used to silence dissent, and what can be done about that?

This is a devastating cost, especially in the internet age. We need courts everywhere to recognise a much stronger immunity from libel for news sites. And if the courts don’t do it, legislatures should.

WT: Barring enormous legal budgets, what steps can digital publications take to protect themselves against potential malicious litigation with the intent to suppress truth?

We need more lawyers to provide pro bono assistance. And we need digital publications to articulate standards of care that should suffice to avoid litigation. But both of those are dreams for now. We are facing a bloody future for at least the next decade.

WT: As one of the world’s leading legal minds, do you believe that ‘the truth’ is an absolute value, given the limitations of human perception and memory? In other words, is there always such a thing as ‘the truth,’ or can it change depending on how it’s observed?

I believe in truth, but I don’t believe there is TRUTH FOR EVER. Science is the practice of showing the old truths which are now false. And what we need is a practice for challenging and revising every truth, regardless of its source.

When that practice is rich and robust, I am happy to call its product “objective truth” — so long as one accepts that the future could teach us that we know now is not correct.

No doubt it will. Our sincere thanks to Larry Lessig for his time. You can read more of Larry’s work on his Medium page.