Past Event

The Withering of the Net

How D.C. pathologies are undermining the growth and wealth of the Net

12:00 AM - 11:59 PM EDT

The Withering of the Net: How D.C. pathologies are undermining the growth and wealth of the Net

Featured Speaker:
Lawrence Lessig, Professor, Stanford University

Introduction by:
Carl Malamud, Senior Fellow and Chief Technology Officer, Center for American Progress

Event Transcript

Event Coverage: How Politics Threatens the Internet

Discriminatory changes proposed in the way the underlying network of the Internet is managed could substantially limit the valuable innovation that has defined the Web’s existence. Lawrence Lessig, law professor at Stanford University and chair of the Creative Commons project, delivered this message at the Center for American Progress on Friday afternoon.

The recent debate over “net neutrality,” according to Lessig, is grounded in three legal principles developed over 22 years ago. These three core ideas at the foundation of the Internet are now threatened.

The first core idea came out of the break up of AT&T in the 1980s. During the process, the government made the physical infrastructure that enabled phone service “neutral.” Service providers could compete and innovate without suffering the competitive disadvantage of building a massive network. “Such infrastructure,” Lessig said, “should be regulated to be neutral and competitive.” The Internet operates under a similar model. Because access to the infrastructure of the Internet is open and non-discriminatory, an individual can publish a Web site as easily as a large corporation. However, major media companies are threatening open innovation by using copyrights to stunt the Betamax principle of minimal technological regulation, thereby raising the cost of innovation.

The second legal principle is government-designated open spectrum, which was developed in 1984. Rather than auctioning off all available spectrums for telecommunications, the government set aside a free access commons that anybody with the technological know-how could access. “This commons,” Lessig said, “built a neutral competitive platform on top of which innovation could occur.” That innovation lead to the wireless technology that is so important today. Unfortunately, the current administration has reversed the flow of open spectrum, shrinking the spectrum available for innovation by auctioning it off.

The third important principle in developing the function of the Internet came from the introduction of Sony’s Betamax technology. At issue was whether the developers of a technology, in this case a video recording machine, could be held responsible for illegal activities committed with the technology. The government settled on minimal regulation, deciding that as long as technology was capable of non-illegal uses, producers could not be held responsible. This encouraged technological innovation by removing the threat of liability. Yet currently there is a push from companies that own the Internet’s infrastructure to allow discrimination in access—charging different users different amounts for the same services. This will end net neutrality and introduce significant hurdles to innovation.

The harms of the movement to end net neutrality, according to Lessig, are significant. We might lose the competitive innovation that has been the overwhelming force behind the Internet. Describing the effects of a network where the owner cannot regulate content, Lessig says, “The right to innovate is held as common in this architecture.” These special conditions create a paradox where “less control over the right to innovate over this platform actually creates more innovation.” But the important political, social, and economic benefits provided by the Internet are threatened by restricted access.

One of the defining characteristic of the Internet as we know it is the “democratization of capacity,” said Lessig. Users of the Internet are not just passive consumers of content; they are active producers as well. He calls that effect “Read/Write” culture, as compared to a “Read Only” culture, where the production of content is concentrated in a few large companies. The threat to the Internet is the imposition of a “Read Only” environment, diminishing the core characteristic that has made the Internet so valuable in the first place. If preserved, Lessig said, “Read/Write will be massively bigger and more valuable to economic growth.”

Creating the conditions for competitive innovation is a difficult process, but in the development of the Internet it has been exceptionally successful. Now large companies are seeking to centralize control of the Internet, potentially fundamentally changing what has become an integral social institution. Progressive government involvement with appropriate minimal regulation, according to Lessig, will help to “minimize the power of the dead hand of the past to control the innovation of today.”

Friday, June 16, 2006
Program: 1:30 P.M. to 2:30 P.M.
Refreshments will be served at 1:00 P.M.
Admission is free.

Center for American Progress
1333 H Street NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005
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Nearest Metro: Blue/Orange Line to McPherson Square or Red Line to Metro Center


Professor Lawrence Lessig ( is the author of three  of the most important books in the field, including Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, The Future of Ideas, and Free Culture. A practioner as well as a scholar, Lessig chairs the Creative Commons project, argued the groundbreaking case Eldred v. Ashcroft before the Supreme Court, and was named one of Scientific American’s top 50 visionaries for arguing “against interpretations of copyright that could stifle innovation and discourse online.”

Carl Malamud is a Senior Fellow and Chief Technology Officer at the Center for American Progress. Malamud is the author of eight books and was the founder of the Internet Multicasting Service, a nonprofit service known for starting the first radio station on the Internet and putting the SEC EDGAR and US Patent databases online. He has been a visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab and at Keio University, was the founding chairman of the Internet Systems Consortium, and is currently Chair of the Jabber Software Foundation.