One of the great insults

Brzezinski says to Scarborough: “You have a such stunningly superficial knowledge of what went on it’s almost embarrassing to listen to you.”

I know just how he feels. Larry Lessig’s opinion in Newsweek about a government ministry to make sure “innovation” happens is along the same lines. “Innovation”, which is neither good nor bad, happens when it has to, and the best way for a government to stimulate it is probably to burden businesses with more redtape and mindless regulations, but that’s not good for more reasons than I can count.

Re-naming the FCC isn’t likely to accomplish a great deal, and that’s about all that Lessig actually recommends.

36 thoughts on “One of the great insults”

  1. Innovation happens when somebody has a good riff. It is continually amusing that somebody in Upper Management Somewhere wants “Innovation” in the same way that every talent scout who hits the bars and dives to where garage bands hope to graduate hopes to find someone who just played the next Layla riff.

    Actually, you’ve got a point: I want my damned bailout. I want a Very Few Strings Attached grant so I can innovate.

    At 2X the salary I’m making now + IPR.

    OK, that’s my starting position…maybe…

  2. Now, now, you’re really being unfair to Lessig’s argument. You can disagree, but knocking down a strawman is just ranting.

    Lessig is not saying that mind-numbing line of Libertarians, the chant of government-is-bad. His argument is that this particular agency, the FCC, is full of deadwood, and it should be dumped in favor of a new agency with new rules. That’s a very reasonable and moderate position.

    At this point, the ranters jump up and down and scream “BUT IT’LL GO BAD TOO!”. Sit down. We know that rebuttal. Anyone who has been on the Net for a while has heard the dogma. Civilization exists, which indicates that at least some values of functioning government are possible.

  3. It’s always a challenge to critique Lessig’s written text, since he’s such a poor writer it’s never clear what he’s trying to say. But I’ll venture the guess that he’s advocating David Reed’s fantasy that wireless spectrum no longer needs to be licensed because some day we’re going to have magic radios that don’t interfere with each other. So the spectrum-management function can go away, and we can all enjoy a future of “Wi-Fi on steroids” without regulation.

    This is nonsense, as any working wireless engineer can tell you. But it’s typical for Lessig to offer sweeping prescriptions for technologies he only understands through third hand descriptions given to him by incompetent hacks.

  4. Richard:

    That’s interesting. The answer to whether such a magical radio even exists is fraught with $$$$$.

    Of course, now we might both be subpoenaed in the next IPR litigation.

  5. While I agree Lessig’s writing can be at times be demanding of a reader, this column didn’t strike me as a particularly difficult work. I don’t see where you get “wireless spectrum no longer needs to be licensed” at all. Sure, it’s broad, but no more so than the average policy article of that length and context.

    All in all, it’s a pretty prosaic piece.

  6. Connect the dots:

    In the next decades, it could well become the default regulator for every new communications technology, including, and especially, fantastic new ways to use wireless technologies, which today carry television, radio, internet, and cellular phone signals through the air, and which may soon provide high-speed internet access on-the-go, something that Google cofounder Larry Page calls “wifi on steroids.”


    Since the birth of the Republic, the U.S. government has been in the business of handing out “exclusive rights” (a.k.a., monopolies) in order to “promote progress” or enable new markets of communication.”


    For example, much of the wireless spectrum has been auctioned off to telecom monopolies, on the assumption that only by granting a monopoly could companies be encouraged to undertake the expensive task of building a network of cell towers or broadcasting stations. The iEPA would test this assumption, and essentially ask the question: do these monopolies do more harm than good?


    Beyond these two tasks, what’s most needed from the iEPA is benign neglect.

    Lessig is arguing that the FCC doesn’t need to oversee spectrum uses, only to protect Internet from its providers. This is Google’s argument.

  7. I think you’re taking a particular result from what’s just a general piece. Certainly, the general piece could lead to the particular result, and gives comfort to it. But Lessig has written a lot on limiting monopolies, so that argues for him to have a nuanced policy view.

    Note Google’s fundamental business concern – being held over a barrel by teleco’s – strikes me as quite valid. I just don’t think it’s a civil-liberties issue, nor want to be an unpaid lobbyist for them.

  8. Lessig never argues generalities without an agenda, and it’s pretty clear what Google’s agenda is in the regulatory space. It’s not so much a desire not to be held over any sort of barrel as it is a desire to deliver TV programming over broadband pipes without the expense of actually pulling wires. Which has nothing to do with the Internet, of course.

  9. What you haven’t established is that Lessig has a detailed and specific agenda which is Google’s agenda, even as a reasonable conjecture. That’s different from having some common interests and being on the same side overall. I don’t think it would be an amazing statement that there’s a business conflict between Google and the telcos and each sides has philosophical allies.

    Frankly, what Lessig gets from Google is pretty light overall. There’s far, far, more specific stuff going on with other people.

  10. The Lessig-Google connection is so well-established at this point there’s no point belaboring it. The larger issue is that the call for a new agency to replace the FCC is actually a call for unlicensed spectrum policy, an opinion that’s above Lessig’s job grade.

    This sort of uninformed advocacy can do real harm, and whatever his motive is for engaging in it, I wish he would stop.

  11. I think you over-estimate the details in the case of Lessig and Google, since it can be made to fit a very simplistic narrative.

    Consider it a cautionary tale in terms of cognitive error, in that you may be making a similar sort of error in regard to Lessig personally, that you claim Lessig is making in regard to spectrum policy.

  12. The Google/Lessig connection is as blatant as the corruption which Lessig hypocritically claims he wants to fight. Google has given millions to Lessig’s center at Stanford and to “Public Knowledge” (the lobbying group on whose board Lessig sits). Just watch as they now start giving generously to Berkman (where Lessig is going).

    Follow the money. Larry Lessig is bought and paid for by Google.

  13. Oh, c’mon Brett – it’s not realistic to expect anyone of Lessig’s standing to have no contact with funding whatsoever. If you really followed the money, you’d know Lessig is in fact amazing clean. No stock options, no start-up boards, no big-ticket guru consulting gigs.

    Again, look at it as making the same mistake you say he’s making. You know a few factoids, which you leap to put together into something confirming your prejudices. And you will not listen to anything contrary or consider you might not have it right.

  14. Oh, I wouldn’t expect Lessig (though I don’t believe that his standing is as great as you seem to) to have no contact whatsoever with funding. However, it’s quite clear whom he’s funded by — and he clearly returns the favor by touting the views he’s paid to tout. Those aren’t factoids; they’re facts.

  15. Hmm, I seem to know people who are fond of saying things like “It’s quite clear Comcast was trying to strangle competition and censor BitTorrent – Those aren’t factoids; they’re facts.”

  16. What video product? We have none. See the problem with your argument? (Seth, I know that you can do better than Lessig, who makes the same bogus allegation.)

  17. Guys, I hope it was clear – your reasoning on Lessig/Google is a mirror-image of certain NN advocates’ reasoning on BitTorrent/Comcast. It’s seizing on one factoid (donation, video competition), and proclaiming it must be the driving force behind the opponent’s major actions (policy, throttling). And when people try to explain it’s more complicated than that, a reaction of no, no, this one little thing is it, you can’t tell me any differently, it’s this, this.

  18. No, Seth; there’s a vast difference. In the case of Lessig, we can see the money changing hands, and going to his various enterprises: his “Internet Center” at Stanford; Public Knowledge; Free Press. In the case of Comcast, not only was no money changing hands but no content was being blocked.

  19. P.S — By the way, Free Press — a group which claims that its mission is media transparency — was apparently so upset that I was expressing sensible views on its blog that it censored my postings.That’s right: a group claiming to advocate openness in the media and free speech is engaging in censorship. Oh, and Lessig is on the Board of Directors; see

  20. Even the well-known Richard Bennett has admitted “BitTorrent does compete with triple-play video” – so that must have been the reason for Comcast’s actions! 🙂

    P.S. Just checking, you’re on the censorship-is-a-general-word side of the censorship-apply-only-government debate?
    [Some people believe the word censorship should only be applied to state action, others believe censorship is more general, can be individual or corporate action]

  21. Not only does BitTorrent compete with Comcast triple play, it also competes with the Web, with FTP, and with VoIP. It doesn’t happen to do so very nicely, however, and there’s the rub.

    Lessig is in a very interesting position because he violates the notion of “corruption” he’s put forward every bit as much as elected officials who collect campaign contributions from industries they regulate.

    So how can you turn a blind eye to Lessig’s behavior without ignoring his thought?

  22. Repeat – Lessig is in fact amazing clean. No stock options, no start-up boards, no big-ticket guru consulting gigs.
    Most importantly, he has tenure. So he doesn’t have to constantly look for ways to please big corporations to make a living.

    My serious answer to your point is that if you want to start analyzing how money affects policy, you’ll be in good company. If you want to just use that concept to bash Lessig, that’s very misguided, and in a way, quite unfair to him personally.

    I would say it’s important to have some sense of relative rating. Nobody in a capitalist market economy is completely pure, just by the nature of the beast. But some are orders of magnitude worse than others.

  23. O Omniscient One, how do you know that Lessig doesn’t own stock? Also, a quick Web search shows that he’s on a number of boards of directors.As for “big ticket consulting gigs:” that’s what lawyering is. A big ticket consulting gig.

  24. He’s made a disclosure statement, and all my research into who-gets-paid-what has never turned up evidence contradicting it. I suppose he could have some secret deals, but it seems very unlikely. Do you have any sense of the type of stock options deal that A-listers tend to have? See:

    Being on the board of directors of small nonprofits is not the same as being on the board of directors of big corporations.

    There’s a difference between being a legal academic (law professor) and taking cases. Law professors can take or consult on cases, but they don’t have to.

  25. Seth, Lessig has litigated a number of high profile cases. And he’s been drawing quite a nice salary from Stanford, too — paid for by Google.

    As for those “small nonprofits” — their revenues and expenditures are tens and even hundreds of times those of my company per year. They are NOT small businesses in any reasonable sense of the term. They’re big time lobbyists.

  26. I don’t personally think that Lessig does what he does for Google’s money, I think he’s into it for the fame and glory. The fact that his prescriptions and descriptions are bad and wrong is enough for me to condemn him, and the Google connection is primarily interesting only for the light it casts on his notion of “corruption.”

    It’s harder to establish motivation than it is to critique the prescriptions in any case, and not particularly informative.

  27. Lessig has only done a handful of cases, of which I think exactly one was a minor moneymaker (Microsoft, and that was many years ago).
    Look, when does the burden of proof reverse? When have I done enough to refute the factoid? If the answer is never, we’re back to the equivalent of saying that since BitTorrent competes with telecom’s own video products, Comcast must have been being abusive.

    With all due respect to your hard work, your company is not the baseline of acceptable size, where anyone larger is thus “big time”. The scale is entirely different in national politics.

    Richard, the problem is then nobody with any impurity could ever try to improve things. There are some very hard moral questions here.

  28. Seth, on this we agree: there are hard moral questions here. But Lessig is amoral. He is looking out only for Lessig. Throughout his career, he has sought parades to jump in front of so that he could claim to lead them. He has also sought corporate money for self-promotion. How much would you like to bet that, with Lessig now going from Stanford to Harvard, that we begin to hear of large corporate contributions following him?

  29. It is laughable that you think copyright reform is a parade that lent itself to “corporate money for self-promotion” by someone who is “amoral”. Do you have any idea of what some of Lessig’s lawyer critics earn? Or even what some more deeply tied to specific corporate interests?
    I was around for _Code_ (as were you), and it was definitely not a popular book with the parade at the time (which was all about ranting hardcore Libertarianism).

    Again, do you know anything, anything at all, about the money here, except the one factoid that keeps being used to bash Lessig?

  30. Doc, thank you for correcting me on that. Given that the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center is focused on ethics, it will be interesting to see how Larry squares the attacks that he and his various lobbying groups (Free Press, Public Knowledge, etc.) on honest small businesspeople, like myself, with any rational code of ethics.

    Seth, as for his book “Code” — I found it to be a yawner. Again, he was jumping on a bandwagon, not actually leading. Also, if Lessig is a Libertarian, why does he consistently advocate regulation that would kill innovation and competition in broadband?

  31. Brett, I was around for the release of _Code_, and it was no bandwagon-jump. It was thoroughly attacked by the then-dominant Libertarian faction.

    I didn’t say Lessig was a Libertarian, quite the opposite!

  32. Seth, it was indeed a jump — onto the “open source” bandwagon. Followed by another jump onto the same bandwagon: the “creative commons” licenses. Some of which share the nasty viral properties of the GPL.

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