Lawrence Lessig speaks on future of law in cyberspace

“To help us engage these questions, perhaps no one is better than Lawrence Lessig,” said Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science Austin Sarat.

Admitting that “It’s my nature to be pessimistic and negative,” Lessig foresaw the future Internet as heavily regulated. While the original Internet was a flexible space that welcomed anonymity and innovation, corporations are reengineering the architecture of the information superhighway with the help of strict intellectual property laws, Lessig said. According to Lessig, the next generation Internet will be much more restrictive than its predecessor.


“At the core of the Internet is a design principle. It directs how intelligence is to be ordered,” Lessig said. “It’s called the ‘end-to-end’ principle. It places intelligence in applications and keeps networks simple. [The Internet’s creators] designed it to mature in any way users wanted.”

Because the Internet “became incapable of discriminating between different applications and content,” it was a difficult space to regulate, Lessig said. This allowed users to provide and access whatever content they wanted to, regardless of what anyone else thought about their material. Once people started taking advantage of the Internet’s freedom, they began to change its architecture. “The architectural principle guaranteed that the network could not discriminate against any kind of innovation,” said Lessig.

When AT&T was developing their own Internet-like network, they wanted to exclude content they did not like, according to Lessig. “It was to be a smart network. They had the power to decide which innovations could run on their network and which could be prohibited,” said Lessig, who added that he feared tomorrow’s Internet will take this direction. “The Internet embraced the opposite constitutional value. The Internet was architected so the controls would be in the ends. There were not gatekeepers or bottlenecks.”

Lessig said that U.S. government has pursued a philosophy of “wait and see before regulation” in regard to the Internet. At present, Lessig said, the government’s non-interventionist stance is quickly leading to the destruction of the old Internet by corporate America. “There has been a move to redesign the space, to take control where the original architecture disabled control,” said Lessig.

The Next Generation Internet

To explain how users’ content could be restricted on the Internet, Lessig analyzed four ways methods of constraint.

The first, law, is used by government to limit actions that people could otherwise perform.

“You’re not permitted to travel more than 65 miles per hour. The constraint is imposed by law, not physics,” Lessig said. “These constraints are conducted through the self-conscious actors of courts and legislatures.”

He cited the recent Napster case and the heightened use of intellectual property law to keep content off the internet as evidence of a move towards regulation.

Internalized norms are also used by people to constrain the actions of others. A man, for example, would probably not show up to a talk in a dress because he is bound by societal norms, Lessig said.

The third constraint he listed was the market, which limits people’s purchasing power.

Lessig said that the fourth constraint, architecture, is the most powerful. “Architecture constrains unconditionally, while these human constraints don’t,” he said. “Like the market, these [architectural] constraints are in real time. We don’t live life like Road Runner, racing off a cliff and discovering the law of gravity. The constraints of architecture require no human intervention.”

Lessig said that the companies building the next generation Internet are doing everything they can to change the Internet’s architecture to prevent anonymity and innovation. Government has aided big business in its quest to tailor the Internet’s architecture to their specifications, Lessig said. “It is the old protecting itself against the new using a very old way; using the power of the state,” Lessig said. “The freedom the Internet created did not come from any law. It came from an architecture that disabled certain concentrations of power.”

In the future, Lessig said, companies would be controlling content more and more and making it increasingly difficult for individuals to choose their own content. A corporate-created, corporate-centric architecture will determine what is allowed on the Internet, according to Lessig.

Changing the Internet’s architecture and returning it to a public space will not be easy, Lessig said. He said that America Online’s chatrooms allow only 23 people at a time just so that individuals will not be able to organize to lobby for changes in its architecture.

Lessig joked, “If you want to create a revolution online, you could be like Paul Revere and go from chatroom to chatroom.”

Lessig favored government intervention to prevent the Internet’s architecture from being controlled by business interests. If law does not regulate the Internet, Lessig feared that nothing would. “Here, in the domain of cyberspace, we clearly find the world as it is, even if this is a world others have made. Clearly, if any space is socially constructed, cyberspace is,” he said.

Though people have the ability to dictate the Internet’s architecture, they are not interested in doing so, Lessig said. “There will be three percent, always, of people who resist, but the ordinary user will comply.”

If Lessig’s projections hold true, copyrighted content in the form of movies, digital music and other entertainment that can now be found on the Internet will not be accessible to anyone, even those few who use a non-standard architecture.