Internet activist and Stanford Law Prof. Lawrence Lessig is considering a run for Congress, a decision he discussed with VentureBeat today.
Lessig made a name for himself through his involvement in the “free culture” movement, which criticizes overly restrictive copyright laws. He literally wrote the book on the subject, Free Culture, which was one of the first things that got me interested in technology and the impact it can have on social change.
Last June he switched his focus from seeking more flexible intellectual property rights to fighting corruption. In particular, he said the influence of money on the political process is holding up reform in other areas. Changing Congress, he says, will be the central issue of his campaign. It will also be the focus of his activism if he decides not to run.
Interest in a Lessig run crystallized last week, following the death of Representative Tom Lantos, the announcement that a special election would be held to fill his seat and the establishment of the “Draft Lessig for Congress” website and Facebook group. Today, Lessig launched Lessig 08, a site dedicated to both a possible congressional run and his broader “Change Congress” campaign. Lessig says his decision will have to come in the next week, and will be based mainly on whether he can make the corruption issue “salient” to voters in his district, which includes parts of San Francisco and San Mateo counties.
Lessig is pushing for a three-pronged approach to change: refusing to accept money from lobbyists or political action committees, banning “earmarks” on congressional spending bills and supporting the public financing of campaigns.
State Senator Jackie Speier has already announced her intention to run for the seat, and although Lessig praises her as an “extraordinarily good” politician, he says he brings more valuable experience to the table– namely, his expertise in Internet law. For example,Lessig says he may have been the first person to use the phrase “the law of cyberspace, or cyberlaw” in testimony before Congress.
Oddly, when I first set up my interview with Lessig, no one knew he might be running for Congress. Instead, I wanted to talk to him about MAPLight.org, whose board he joined at the end of January. But MAPLight ties in with Lessig’s possible campaign, because the site makes it easy for people to see where politicians are getting their campaign funds, how they’re voting and whether there’s any connection. (Read our coverage.)
“The really powerful thing I remember is having the opportunity to take many different views,” Lessig says. “It seems to invite people to begin to add their own value. It takes the Wikipedia instinct, which is to take small manageable work that progresses the public good, and applies it to this problem [of corruption].”
It’s probably too early for VentureBeat to pick any favorites in the race — the candidates aren’t even finalized, after all — but a Lessig campaign sounds exciting, and it would bring a lot of important issues to the forefront.
If he runs and wins, Lessig says he wouldn’t be a single-issue candidate, either — he’d work on other fronts important to a progressive Democrat, such as health care, the economy and “this abomination of a war.”
“But in that respect, I’d be just one of 435 members of Congress,” Lessig says. “What I want to do as a member of Congress is to leverage those two things [his expertise on corruption and the Internet] to be a more significant first-time member.”
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