Corruption Lecture – alpha version

As promised, here’s the first lecture on corruption. It is an alpha version. I’m eager for comments and feedback. My first written feedback came from Aaron Swartz, with whom I had conspired last winter about making this move. I have reprinted his comments in the extended entry, with some replies.

I’ve also set up a page on the wiki where I will collect significant versions of the argument. Summary and criticism there would be helpful.

Comments by Aaron Swartz:

# Lessig on Corruption

**The Argument:**

(American) politics is filled with easy cases that we get wrong. The
scientific consensus on global warming is overwhelming, but we abandon
the Kyoto Protocol. Nutritionists are clear that sugar is unhealthy,
but the sugar lobby gets it into dietary recommendations. Retroactive
copyright extensions do nothing for society, but Congress passes them
over and over.

Similar errors are made in other fields that have the public trust.
Studies of new drugs are biased towards the drug companies. Law
professors and other scholars write papers biased towards the clients
they consult for.

Why? Because the trusted people in each case are acting as
_dependents_. The politicians are dependent on fundraising money. They
are good people, but they need to spend a quarter of their time making
fundraising calls. So most of the people they speak to our lobbyists
and they never even hear from the other side. If they were freed from
this dependence they would gladly do the right thing.

The scientists get paid to sign on to studies done by the drug
companies. The law professors get paid to consult.

How do we solve it? We need to free people from dependency. But this
is too hard. We should fight for it, but politicians will never
endorse a system of public funding of campaigns when they have so much
invested in the current system. Instead, we need norms of
independence. People need to start saying that independence is
important to them and that they won’t support respected figures who
act as dependents. And we can use the Internet to figure out who’s
acting as dependents. Projects funded by the Sunlight Foundation can
be used to identify politicians who decide in response to campaign
contributions and the Internet can work together to identify these
people and shame them.

So far, I agree with this summary.

Finally, there is another kind of corruption. Lessig represented a man
who was abused by the headmaster of his boarding school. The courts
focused all the blame on the monster, the headmaster, and decided that
everyone working at the school who knew the abuse was going on and did
nothing was immunized. But we cannot change the monsters — instead,
the real guilt lies with the good people who support them.

If politicians are those monsters, we are those good people. We are
all complicit.

Almost. I need to make this point clearer. The argument has three parts — (1) identifying that corruption, (2) arguing that norms must be an important part in remedying corruption, and (3) that our focus should be on those of us who can do something, not on those who can’t. I don’t think politicians are monsters; what links politicians with the abuser and the President is that they can’t do anything, or enough.


The argument is new, only half-finished, and has been made only
circumspectly in a couple fora. So it is not surprising that I do not
totally understand it.

I think there’s a disanalogy between politicians and the scholars.
Politicians need the money to run their campaigns, while scholars seem
to take it out of greed. This disanology becomes more severe when we
talk about solutions: we can make politicians less dependent on money,
but it’s less clear how to make scholars less greedy. I suppose the
norm regimes work for both, however.

This is an important distinction, but I don’t think that the problem with scholars is “greed.” I do agree, however, whatever the character of the problem, what unites both cases is that they both can be (somewhat) remedied by norms.


The first part is right: there is a lot of corruption. In fact, I
think there is far more than Lessig suggests. Our schools are taught
from textbooks which are chosen through a corrupt process. Our college
professors only receive tenure if they teach the established wisdom
(or something novel that’s close enough). Our corporations routinely
break the law to maximize profit. Our media routinely get the facts
wrong in service of their monetary interests. Our public intellectuals
sign their names on to corporate-written op-eds and PR-run
psuedoconferences. And so on.

But I think the diagnosis of the problem is only halfway there. In the
case of politicians, Lessig says they are good people who are forced
into doing wrongs because they need to raise campaign funds. This
means they spend most of their time with lobbyists who only give them
one side of the story. This is almost right.

Lessig is missing the power of the _filter_. Even if the politicians
knew all the right positions in advance and could not be swayed by
lobbyists, it would not help: these politicians would never get
elected. If a politician does not espouse pro-business positions, they
do not get campaign funds. If they do not get campaign funds, they
will lose to someone who can. This is very well documented:
Businessmen even have dinner parties where they interview candidates
to determine which ones agree with their interests and then go ahead
to fund those. (Lessig should know this, since I believe he’s attended
and possibly hosted such parties.)

Possibly, but actually no, no such parties. But the more important point in response is to acknowledge that solving the problem of corruption is not the same as getting a government that I (or Aaron) agrees with. Corruption is the amplification of money in the process. But even without that amplification, the other side may well have more votes. E.g., I disagree with the Supreme Court in many cases. In none do I think the disagreement has to do with money.

And, when politicians find a way to avoid relying on businesses for
money, like Howard Dean did, there is still the media to contend with.
Lessig has notably avoided saying much about the media’s complicity
(more on this later).

Lessig we suggest we have bloggers ostracize bad politicians. But all
politicians are bad in this sense — there is no other way they can be

This is very true. So the solution is not within the system. It comes from changing the system, or the rules governing the system.

And nobody who votes is going to check those blogs first.
Only 10% of the population even votes on the basis of issues; the
percentage whose vote will be swayed by corruption must be miniscule,
and most of those will be swayed in the (counter-productive) direction
of not voting.

For the other scholars, he is not even close. You are a scientist. You
spend long hours at a lab painstakingly measuring out various
chemicals. You have to work incredibly hard to avoid getting fired.
You don’t see your family. You needed to move to a strange city to get
the job, so your wife is out of work. You had to by a new house in
this town so the debt is crushing. You still haven’t paid off your
school loans. Now a man comes and says that he’ll pay you tens of
thousands if you just sign your name to your study. Better still, he’s
well trained in the tactics of persuasion and you find yourself
signing it even before you stop to think about the implications.

Yes, it would be nice if all scientists were good, strong men who
could resist such ignoble urges. But that’s not going to happen. Even
if there is ridicule and sanctions for some of the scientists who
engage in such deals, it will still be very hard to say no.

Let’s define a kind of regulation as “soft regulation.” Soft regulation is the sort that comes through norms. No doubt, soft regulation is not always effective. But that’s different from saying it’s not enough. Science doesn’t crumble because a handful of scientists are corrupted.


Why “instead”? Why not both?

I think we have to focus on the man with the contract and
pen. He works for a profit-maximizing corporation that will stop at
nothing (Lessig says they stop at the law, but that’s a joke) to make
such bogus studies. If you somehow convince all the scientists to be
good, strong men, they will invent their own scientists (look at
what’s happened with think tanks). If the journals reject the fake
scientists, they will take over the journals. If the government
rejects the new journals, they will take over the government. As long
as they’re in control, you will never win this game of whack-a-mole.

Lessig says he hopes this isn’t true because it is depressing. It is
hard to fix the profit-maximizing corporation. Sadly, the truth is
sometimes depressing. And I think fixing the profit-maximizing
corporation would be a good idea. But there is an easier place to
start: fix the media.

Any government, even dictatorship, relies to some extent on the tacit
consent of the population. (Hume) Usually this is done through
propaganda and the media and our government is no different. Media
campaign ads as well as the (often irrelevant and miniscule) campaign
news coverage are how the country decides who to vote for as well as
forming the basis for many of their other positions. (If all you know
about social security is that it will go bankrupt unless it is
privatized, then even the most left-wing person will support
privatizing social security.)

Fixing the media does not seem absurdly out of reach. The Internet is
helping a great deal and I think it is possible to do a great deal
more. This seems rather more practical than having people to listen to
bloggers when deciding who to vote for or teaching all scientists to
be good strong men.

Fixing the media is good and important. And indeed, the mechanism I imagine with peer-producers on the net is not that voters read and then vote, but that such work shifts the debate in, and through, “the media.” So I’m all for this. But I don’t think the problem with “the media” is that they don’t read enough blogs. There is real economics driving the spiral in that field, and it would take an extraordinary amount of resources to check that spin. (Though I do know of some very good news on this front to be announced (not by me) soon.)

But his (very powerful) last part is also correct: we are all
complicit. In some of his talks, Lessig goes further and points the
finger right at the people he is addressing. This is exactly right and
extremely courageous. I hope that we can find the courage to change.

Complicity is the punchline. Its recognition is the first step to change.

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76 Responses to Corruption Lecture – alpha version

  1. One error I spotted – The Google part is almost (not quite, but almost) the opposite of what you say. They didn’t succeed because of merely refusing to do paid-placement. There were plenty of other search engines which didn’t do paid-placement either. Remember AltaVista? Google had a combination of factors, including bona-fide better technology AND the fact that big companies were uninterested in the market – part of the story is how Microsoft ignored the area until it was too late. Plus, Google then made an associated advertising model work, which now threatens to become a privacy monster (there’s a lot of irony that people quote, given their original ideas of integrity). It’s not exactly a supportive story for your purposes.

    Wikipedia is also a complex case. I doubt whether or not they have ads on the pages make a profound difference for readers, whether or not they “trust” it. The ads on newspaper websites refute that idea thoroughly. It does seem to make important difference in the ability to get people to work for free. So Wikipedia is kind of like a real-life story of the goose that laid golden eggs. You can get people to work for free, but that makes it hard to monetize them (hence the formally-separate but heavily-associated commercial start-up, “Wikia”!). It doesn’t prove at all what you seem to offer it as proving (sadly, it’s very difficult to write a good examination of what drives Wikipedia – some of which is very problematic cult behavior – because of, drumroll, all the associated “corruption” involved, not in terms of direct cash, but the promise of unpaid labor).

    Overall, it’s an inspiring sermon, I’m not sure if you meant it to be more than that. I assume Aaron Swartz will be commenting about the system-dynamics issues, so I’ll skip that.

  2. Lou Copper says:

    Stupid question, but… What is that wonderful font you are using in your presentation?

  3. lessig says:

    RTF Isabella Pro.

    • Your video appears to be unavailable.
    • This may be because Google Video is only available in some countries.
    • Could we have a written transcript please?
  4. jérémie Z. says:

    Hello Professor.

    Could you please make a link to the downloadable video file, so everyone who doesn’t trust the awful Adobe Flash Player into their computer can see it ?

    Greetings from France where we too believe in that new angle of fighting for general public good.

  5. In reply to Seth Finkelstein, a lot of people have trouble wrapping their minds around Wikipedia. I use and find myself trusting Wikipedia because it is driven by the general public, and not by some corporation, or a bunch of editors with an agenda. An essential part of that trust comes from Wikipedia not being beholden to advertisers, and more importantly, not being beholden to a gang of opportunists who are only thinking about how to make a buck off of this operation.

    As for newspapers and the rest of the corporate media, I do not trust anything they say for the same reasons. The ads that they display are red flags proclaiming that they are not trustworthy. As information disseminators, I consider them ureliable because the flow of information through their organizations contains too many bottlenecks and filters. It is for that specific reason that the internet already is the main driving force behind the flow of information in our society.

    Sad to say, a recent survey (which popped up on boing-boing) showed that some 75 percent of Americans still trust the corporate media. I am in the minority, but a growing minority. In time, a majority of the population will learn how to use and manage this array of information tools that has become commonly available in the last ten years. When that happens, the corporate media will lose it’s profitability and fade away. And I say, good riddance.

  6. Justin Kirby says:

    While all analogies break down once inspected, I would recommend something other than the carbon credit program. Find something that has already achieved a change in societal norms. Unfortunately, the carbon credit system is already perceived as a corrupt joke. I will attempt to find more constructive criticism later.

    Thank you for doing this.

  7. Regarding: “Fixing the media does not seem absurdly out of reach. The Internet is helping a great deal and I think it is possible to do a great deal more.”

    I disagree – I think the way the Internet is being used (not “The Internet” per se, but the way it is being used within a whole framework) is making things worse. But you don’t hear that much in these circles, since there’s no money in saying it :-(.

  8. motabit says:

    great talk, but you should have yourself in the shot. the slideshow is nice but it would be better as a background and seeing you in the fore-ground talking.

    thanks for the lecture

  9. How interesting. The comment I posted this morning, concerning how our traditional corporate media corrupts information by filtering it, was deleted.

    That was precisely my point. The arbitrary filters on our information are acts of corruption. I’m sorry to see that whoever is “maintaining” this site is inherently corrupt.

    I guess that’s what you call irony.

  10. Dan says:

    While I happen to be a dem and agree with you, I wouldn’t use GWB as the example here. Eliminating corruption is such an important issue and there are so many non-partisan examples (like Copyright) that scoring political points will lose some key potential allies.

  11. six says:

    Interesting twist on this phenomenon (which may be of some use for people interested in crafting robust anti-corruption legislation) in Wednesday’s LA Weekly:

  12. David Bray says:

    Hi Larry – great presentation and ideas. As someone who has several years of government service (most recently as IT Chief for the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program at the Centers for Disease Control), before entering academia to pursue a PhD, I can say you definitely are on the mark about the money problem perverting how government makes decisions.

    I would also suggest that you look not just at the problems of money influencing Congress and the Presidential Elections – I would also suggest you look at how money influences what gets done by the Executive Branch. Specifically, money preverts government agencies from not collaborating with other agencies (for fear their resources will be stolen or cut). Most government agencies’ mission statements are ambiguous and often overlap with unclear delineation of responsibilities. While they usually begin with defined goals, over time, subsequent “patches” to their mission can make these objectives less clear. Other departments or agencies, such as the newly formed U.S. Department of Homeland Security, experience ambiguity when several assets with competing priorities are combined and repackaged with unclear functions. Though they represent a single government, departments and agencies often compete among each other to justify their existence, funding, and need to expand.

    Second, government needs to streamline the funding process. The current process involves time delays that spawn cross-agency “turf battles” over limited funds. These battles spill over to data, information, and knowledge in these government agencies. In an effort to protect their budget and personnel, individuals start to hoard what they know. The need to earmark most budgets three years in advance, long before any foreseen execution, leads to intentional generalities and vagueness. The process begins when a division submits its budget earmark to the leadership of the agency. Leadership then will revise the budget to its liking. The parent department will revise the budget yet again. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget will include more revisions. Finally, what Congress passes three years later for a specific fiscal year may be completely different from what the division originally earmarked.

    A third requirement is an emphasis on renewed incentives for collaboration among government agencies. Currently, if one division willingly discloses their activities and volunteers to collaborate, the government division risks having their budget and personnel cut because of apparent redundancies. Other divisions, in an effort to justify their existence and find reasons to expand, may claim elements of a transparent division as being already in their own mission and therefore redundant. Our system of government encourages this subsuming behavior, since at the higher levels, employees receive promotions not necessarily based on merit, but on whomever has the largest “empire” of perceived power. With no motivation to work together, and substantial motivation not to collaborate, government agencies opt to cloud their activities protectively.

    In academic terms, these three challenges represent social dilemmas – where multiple individuals perceives a higher payoff for defecting rather than cooperating, but in fact all individuals would be better off if they all cooperated vs. defected. Divisions perceive being open and transparent as negative activities which risk having funds or staff subsumed by other divisions or agencies. Passive-aggressive behaviors occur as directors avoid organizational transparency with the belief that by remaining opaque, they preserve their power and funding sources. Yet if all government agencies are transparent and openly share information, all individuals in government will ultimately benefit since cross-government collaborations will be more frequent and effective. Reduction of redundancy and streamlined government operations would save taxpayer dollars. Our system of government would be better able to serve and protect us as citizens.

    So how should we motivate individuals in government to cooperate and collaborate with each other, rather than “defect” and hide their activities, information, and resources? Our system of government needs to be re-engineered to correct the prolonged budget cycle of the federal government and encourage organizational transparency. Technology can assist with streamlining; however, camaraderie among agencies is vital to the adoption of common information systems. Our system of government needs to reward those who operate transparently and discourage those who obscure and hide their resources. Since humans – and their actions – define our government, simple incentives can modify behaviors, creating rewards for being effective, efficient, open, and transparent – and disincentives for being opaque or non-collaborative with other divisions.

    The need for transparency extends to the political leaders of government. Most political appointees publicly support transparency, yet privately sabotage such efforts. For them, if public policy disagrees with scientific findings, it is better not to have the information gathered or available. If cross-government transparency were present, political positions would be more difficult to support. Government would have to become more logical (vs. political) if it were less opaque. As such, political leaders, alongside lobbyists backed by large businesses, are more likely to bend any fixes to the current problematic structure to suit their political concerns than provide an unbiased, long-term solution. Their incentives motivate personal self-interest, though some also have altruistic motivations.

    Turnover is also a problem. Most government employees have long service careers, whereas their “bosses” do not. Department heads, members of Congress, and presidential appointees frequently change. This makes it difficult to maintain a consistent vision needed to address long-term issues such as public health, environmental protections, or economic development efforts. Use of broad 15- or 20-year goals set by public referendum or electronic government participation (e-participation) efforts may help to rebalance the constant turnover of our political leaders. Though generally, we, as individual citizens, are a fickle lot – if the health of our communities, world, and economy truly are important, we all need to help define our nation’s path.

    Well… if you want to discuss this further, send me an email at dbray (at) bus (dot) emory (dot) edu – I’m approaching these thoughts from a technology perspective, with the idea that technology can change the perception of incentives, norms of use, and competence-based trust among government participants… for good or for bad. What we need to figure out is the right combination of technology and motivations/incentives to produce the desired outcomes of less corruption, more good faith actions, and better government.

  13. David Haines says:

    Truly excellent. I’m just becoming involved in the free culture movement and have nothing but praise for it. As far as criticism, I’d say I was lost a little when you came to the part about lawyers (though you made your context known in due course). Overall, I’d call it an excellent speech. Stirring words for my generation, the disinterested and the silent.

  14. g. says:

    just a note on style: in the video version I found the red text difficult to decipher. I would it find easier on the eye if the unimportant text was made grey or the important text was either surrounded by a white outline to enhance contrast or were simply made bold-white instead of red.

    re: video: you can download it directly from its google page

  15. Luther Blissett says:

    Nice advert for Google, the Professor’s sponsors.

    “Complicity is the punchline”

    Google Inc. Pledges $2M to Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society
    November 28, 2006

    Stanford Law School today announced that Google Inc. has pledged to contribute $2M to help fund the Center for Internet and Society (CIS) at the law school. The Center, founded in 2000 and located in the heart of Silicon Valley, is a public interest technology law and policy program focused on emerging technologies and the law. The collaboration of Google and CIS seeks to establish a balance between the right to access and use information and the ownership of information.

    Did they get their money’s worth?

  16. Aaron Swartz says:

    Smart, dedicated people have been trying to get the media to cover the issues for years. Instead, they continue to obsess about the horserace. It’s pretty deep-seated. See, e.g., James Fallows’ _Breaking the News_. There was a whole movement in the 1990s (many of its members, like Jay Rosen, have since resurfaced as bloggers) to get the media to cover political issues. They got a handful of newspapers to try it, circulation skyrocketed, citizens loved it, but the rest of the media completely refused to do it because it was “unprofessional” and it fizzled out. I’m not sure how “peer-producers on the net” are going to change this.

    I don’t think the problem with the media is that they don’t read enough blogs. I think we’re going to have to replace the media. In the era of the Internet, that’s seeming less absurd.

  17. HH says:

    This is an extraordinary and moving lecture that, to me, represents a turning point in American political history, not because of Larry Lessig’s passion or critical perspicacity on the money/corruption issue – but because he is one of the first of our leading thinkers to begin acting along foundational lines. By this I mean he is thinking about large-scale innovations in the way public business is conducted and governmental structures are erected.

    The political Earth is trembling as the rapid evolution of Internet society is creating tremendous pressure for quantum change in the precision, accountability, and responsiveness of institutions. What Lessig is articulating, possibly without even understanding it, is an early vision of open source politics and its most promising progeny: Internet Protocol Law, a system of consensual regulatory structures that exfoliates from dozens of centers of reform and intellectual ferment and fuses into a new framework for the regulation of human affairs.

    The “norms” Lessig hopes to sow in a new activist polity are better understood as consensual structures, and it is these structures that will spell the doom of the old corruptible parliaments. It is crucially important for Professor Lessing to grasp the analogy between Internet RFC evolution of technical protocols and the future “normative” adoption of global behavioral protocols that have all the effects of laws, but bypass completely the corrupted choke points of sovereign legislatures.

    Professor Lessig has before him the extraordinary historical opportunity to drive the golden spike (or packet) that links the radical innovation of consensual evolution of Internet technical protocols with the evolution of behavioral and legal protocols in a networked world. On this, much depends.

  18. duus says:

    Thanks. A wonderful lecture.

  19. Jordan says:

    Wow! Very inspiring!

    The only part I had some difficulty with was in the first 20 minutes or so where you were explaining the different meaning of dependence/independence. It’s a critical point, but it’s very dense and perhaps could use a clearer, slightly expanded explanation.

    I look forward to your next presentation!

  20. duus says:

    You may be interested in a discussion of this video on biongboing, here;


  21. Nato Welch says:

    One thing I’ve observed about campaign donations is how money can still bear influence even in the absence of quid pro quo scenario. Candidates don’t have to change their minds on issues in order to be influenced; all that matters is that there be an absence of funding support for candidates with an opposing view. Such candidates would have limited access to running for office, even if such limited access only manifests in a “chilling effect” analogous to what we see in free speech issues. It ends up turning into a kind of natural selection for candidates and policies.

    Could you imagine a “quid pro quo” negotiation in biological evolution? Me neither.

    I blogged this in a bit more detail, and in more context (surrounding Clinton’s defense of lobbyist money at YearlyKos) here:

  22. Phillip K. says:

    I liked how you granulated your arguments. May I suggest a further granulation? While you focus on the money specifically, I think that ‘money’ needs to put under the concept of ‘gifts’. There are three types of ‘gifts’. ‘Gifts’ of ‘money’, which your lecture addresses, gifts of ‘objects’, and gifts of ‘services’. ‘Gifts’ of ‘objects’ and gifts of ‘services’ can buy the exact same bias that ‘money’ can.

    As Seth touched upon, I think that Wikipedia as a positive example is problematic. While there is no ‘gift’ of money, there is a ‘gift’ of ‘services’ that introduces biases into its articles (esp. controversial ones). Wikipedia rewards those people (and groups) who have the greatest time resource to ‘gift’ editing ‘services’, and hence those people are rewarded by being able to introduce their bias into an article, often with ‘admin’ status which allows them greater powers of editing abilities (e.g. deleting and locking articles, and banning others). As you note, Wikipedia has flaws, but because it accepts ‘gifts’ too, I feel that it is more of an example of corruption rather than virtue.

    Another example where ‘gifts’ of ‘services’ that comes to mind is Orrin Hatch’s (a copyright nemesis?) use of Schering-Plough’s corporate jet (a Gulfstream IV) for his presidential campaign in 1999. At that time Schering-Plough were lobbying heavily for legislation that would help them extend the patent term of their blockbuster drug Claritin. In 2000, a bill showed up in the senate that would allow then to do just that, submitted by a ‘Senator Anonymous’. It was later learned that the ‘Senator Anonymous’ was Orrin Hatch.

    Regardless of Hatch’s widespread gaffes concerning the public interest (such as suggesting that file sharer’s computers be destroyed) he continues to get re-elected. This is because of several factors. A two party system in which a largely conservative state is going to almost always vote republican, local politics insuring that challengers have a difficult time within the republican party, and a electorate that is largely disconnected from the politicians they elect (and this returns to the issue of access).

    At the present time, Congress’s approval rating is at an all time low of 11% (according to one popularly cited poll). But I submit that if you were to go to any congressperson’s district you would find a far greater percentage of people (if not majority) that approve of the job their specific congressperson is doing. Is this because of general passivity (as you describe it) or because a continuous drone of other voices (with other agendas and greater resources) manages to shout down and hence ‘silence’ others with less resources? Maybe both?
    Also, I reflect upon my own state legislature. They outlawed any gift costing more than $50. Well, what happened is the gifts still continue on arriving. Except that the gifts come in the form of tickets (courtside) to basketball games and dinners to restaurants that no one else is able to get a reservation to. I think that if they were to lower the gift level to $1 we would see bubblegum – made in paris, spiced with truffles and wrapped in gold foil with the scent of lilacs, as you opened it to chew….

  23. HH says:

    Lessig = Jefferson

    Multinational Corporations = British Crown

    Internet-Based Global Charter and Protocol Movement = Constitutional Convention

    Lessig’s Corruption Lecture = Shot Heard Around the World

    It is on.

  24. Paul M says:

    I sure thought transparency applies to Professors, Mr Blissett.

    Why can’t Lessig disclose his debt to Google? $2 million is not a small donation.

  25. Luther Blissett says:


    Lessig and his instant sock puppet Aaron want you to look for corruption everywhere – except at the door of their sponsors.

    Aaron: “| think we’re going to have to replace the media”

    Replace it with … a Google feed direct to the Professor? Seems like $2m can buy a lot of silence!

    “Complicity is the punchline”


  26. Luther Blissett says:

    Seth Finkelstein,

    “I think the way the Internet is being used is making things worse.”

    Not when you can buy up a Professor for a mere $2m! Conventional lobbying requires token transparency rules.

    For $2m, Google can buy a lobbyist who never has to say sorry.

    Cue Lessig.

  27. R. Krick says:

    This is an interesting premise, and one worth exploring. To summarize, from where I sit. The corrupt are the corrupt, and therefore won’t change. Ie, why does a dog eat his own vomit, he’s a dog. It is whether the corrupt are enabled in their corruption, or if they are actively fought, by open exposure, or more direct means of thwarting, that is important.

    And I have to agree. Unfortunately, former Vice President Alan Gore is a man who has minimal credibity for me especially in issues of governmental integrity, and therefore I am unlikely to ever read, and even then, likely to treat with a large grain of salt, Nobel Prize winner though he may be. (yes, by the way, I’m a Tennessean).

    For when it came to his own test of character with the corrupt acts of another, he flunked, badly, as did Richard Nixon before him. My other major concern is that, when it comes to enviornmentalism, the attitude of ‘Do as I say, and not as I do’ bothers me to no end. While yes, if Carbon offets do indeed result in the planting of more trees, which are a form of nature’s carbon scrubbers, it is a nice thing and beneficial. I fear it becomes as the Catholic Church at the time of the Protestant reformation. That is, the carbon reduction certificate is sold to the ‘green’ person, so they may continue to polute, in effect, becoming an indulgence, which was a piece of paper stating that an individual had his or her sin reduced, courtesy of the excess holiness of the saints, or for that matter, the sin of near family members who had passed on and might be languishing in purgatory for their ill ways. Especially if the company never actually does any of the carbon offsetting things, and merely collects the money. In effect, it is a pass to continue polluting, and yet maintaining a false sense that one has done one’s part. I’d rather see such lights as the former Vice president taking steps to correct the personal problems, rather than blaming those around them. (By comparison, the current president’s house is much more enviornmentally concious and friendly than the one owned by the former Vice President environmental activist. Or was last time I checked anyways, the former Vice President may have remodeled it, but I doubt it.)

    Ironically, I think you would find common cause among the Promise Keepers movement, who attack the problem from a personal level, though admittedly from a more fundamentalist Christian perspective. However, they have no tolerance for personal corruption, which they refer to as ‘sin.’ Old word, but that used to hold much power. And let’s face it. It’s far easier for the corrupt to protect and defend the corrupt than it is for the righteous. Platitudes, I suppose.

    By and large, I found it a facinating speech and one worth thinking long and hard on, and ideally, finding something I can do to reduce corruption. Ironically, as an accountant, I don’t see money as a fundamentally bad thing. That said, I remember well the Enron scandal, and what happened to Arthur Anderson. At the end of the day, Arthur Anderson sold their credibility for money, such that if I ever I were to see a financial statement audited by them, I’d demand a seperate audit by someone else, as their word is now worthless.

    Enron and Arthur Anderson dovetail well into your points, and might be a point of research.

    Meantime, keep up the good work… and hey the air in achedemia can get stuffy. Us’n commoners aren’t really all that bad, though we like to argue our points.

  28. I’m a bit confused. If global warming is an “easy case” then why did Al Gore need to use examples that are demonstrably false? Recently a judge in England ruled that “An Inconvenient Truth” contained nine scientific errors. The judge also ruled that the weight of scientific evidence supported Gore’s overall thesis.

    If global warming in indeed an “easy case” shouldn’t it be easy to make the case without resorting to false and misleading information?

  29. I tested the alpha version of the lecture and found it did not crash either of my cerebral hemispheres. It did, however, lead my cerebellum to feel pleasure and experience a sense of learning.

    The use of red-on-black (or red-on-gray) text was unreadable to me.

    My substantive comment, if permitted within the context of alpha testing:

    We have no need to ask why people fail to exhibit independence, as the reasons for such failure are evident all around us. Instead we might ask — on the rare occasions when people have exhibited such independence — why they did so.

    To put the matter another way, dependence (in your sense) is dog bites man, and therefore not news. Independence is man bites dog. It is worthy of further study.

    Why would or should anyone ever sacrifice his or her future wealth for some sort of ideal? This, it seems to me, is the Neocon question. Their point seems to be that there is never a reason to sacrifice oneself for any other person or persons.

    Imagine oneself in a crowd of people who suddenly find it necessary to struggle, in competition with each other, for oxygen. There is some oxygen coming in at a vent, but not enough to go around. Who among us, do you think, could remain polite, decent, even properly human under such circumstances? One’s physical, biological body, I think, would almost instantly take over and battle blindly for air, something like what happens to a prisoner being subjected to “simulated drowning” at Guantanamo.

    The key point then becomes, why do many of us now feel we need money almost as urgently as we need oxygen?

    Even better, why has anyone, now or in the past, ever felt less than frantic about money?

    William R. Catton , the author of Overshoot (1980, now back in print) suggests that only while the New World still contained lots of land and resources per person, could we feel safe enough to be other than constantly, compulsively grubbing for safety in the guise of dollars.

    Could it be that, with the perceptible decline in our ecological safety, we are all now more scared, more desperate for assurances of survival than we were 230 years ago?

  30. Chad Wellington says:

    In defense of the Google donations, note the independence principle as Lessig has stated it, available here. He explicitly covers fundraising for his center, and how he does not find the action to put him in the donors’ debt. Namely, his position, pay, and recognition are independent of how much or how little any group gives to his center. While I do share some misgivings about oversimplifying within the examples themseves stated earlier, it is just as likely that Google came up as the example as the world’s most prominent search engine and in sharing the same physical (and, largely, political) locality of Stanford.

    In offense of the Bush references, I also find it deleterious to the talk’s quality. I value Lessig’s work in the copyright domain, and now the political corruption domain, especially high because of its general presentability to people I wish to introduce to the subject material. I appreciate being able to reference his work and trust its approachability, understandability, and general neutrality. I would, myself, extend the objection to many of the examples here given. GW Bush’s legal interpretations and Al Gore’s environmental predictions may be dandy examples to an exclusively liberal crowd, but I rankle at their mere mention in most contexts. They are extraordinarily important subjects for debate, and thus do not bear simplificaiton and knee-jerk agreement. I would never recommend this video to any of my (severely) conservative/right-wing friends, as I would be afraid of these examples tainting their understanding and view of the argument.

    The strength of the “free mickey” argument in the copyright realm is because of its inanity, not in spite of it. Like the nutrition example here, the stupidity is clear and bright. The more complicated gets the example, the more difficult gets the task of connecting it to the current context. Thus do the Google and Wikipedia examples here pale in comparison to the head-slapping directness of, say, the Disney hypocricy towards public domain and fair use. The Bush and Gore examples are thus doubly damned; not only are they divisive political issues likely to alienate broad swaths of the audience, but also they are likely needlessly complicated.

  31. sarah says:

    i think the independence you talk about is structurally similar to feminist empowerment (the ’70s kind) and related ideas from anti-oppression work. the ability to act on your values, and not be beholden. ethics through personal independence. not being caught up in defensive hierarchies of exploiting and being exploited.

    that’s fun– that opens up a giant pool of potential activist models and patterns to draw from (maybe a successful diy example for the “what to do” section?). there’s plenty of anti-oppression analysis that is basically about the economics of people becoming independent/empowered. i think it would be a good place to look for ideas on supporting citizens to act against corruption. (i cringed a bit to see you lecturing people on their own personal potential… it’s hard for an audience to be independent and look up to an authority at the same time.)

    that lens would probably also make the observation that the people with the most privileges are the same ones who sell out everyone else rather less outrageous/surprising. and make you less popular. but maybe it could be a private study thing 😉

    anyway, this is all very exciting. may the force be with you!

  32. John Barnes says:

    Came here via BoingBoing. That was entertaining and informative, I started watching via my Wii’s internet browser but the thing ran out of memory to display the video so I watched the second half on our PC. I may be sending this link onward to some of my former professors. Bravo!

    The functional CAPTCHA helped induce me to actually comment, by the way.

  33. Hey, is there a version of this presentation in a non-proprietary format? I don’t have Flash installed, and I haven’t gotten Gnash to compile yet.

  34. Francesco Simi says:

    Great lecture. The only thing that puzzles me is why you didn’t talk about the most effective solution to political corruption known to men: direct democracy.

    It works amazingly well in Switzerland:

  35. Ike says:

    Isn’t it so that the very practises and ideals we have had so far are at the basis of corruption? Isn’t reaffirming those practises and ideals inviting more corruption into our world? Sure, I want to make a difference, and in a way that is not far from yours. Malnutrition and global warming are main concerns, as science also will confirm. But is reestablishing reason the path to a healthy world? Ideals are bound to become the main blind spot.

    You are not shouting to deaf ears, most of us must recognize your story themselves. Few people are that naive. There is that little voice in each one of us, yet “reason” may be the one thing suppressing it, who knows? How can one be made to listen? And then to act? Swim upstream?

    Keep your voice down. Listen. What does it say? Take control. Embrace your hunger for power. Take it all. Take command.

    So it begins. We are not the bad guys, but we’re not the good guys either. We are fools hungry for precious metal. Worthless metal. Dangerous paper. Dreams of the face. Nasty habitses. What to do?

    Cry baby.

  36. Ike says:

    Isn’t it so that the very practises and ideals we have had so far are at the basis of corruption? Isn’t reaffirming those practises and ideals inviting more corruption into our world? Sure, I want to make a difference, and in a way that is not far from yours. Malnutrition and global warming are main concerns, as science also will confirm. But is reestablishing reason the path to a healthy world? Ideals are bound to become the main blind spot.

    You are not shouting to deaf ears, most of us must recognize your story themselves. Few people are that naive. There is that little voice in each one of us, yet “reason” may be the one thing suppressing it, who knows? How can one be made to listen? And then to act? Swim upstream?

    Keep your voice down. Listen. What does it say? Take control. Embrace your hunger for power. Take it all. Take command.

    So it begins. We are not the bad guys, but we’re not the good guys either. We are fools hungry for precious metal. Worthless metal. Dangerous paper. Dreams of the face. Nasty habitses. What to do?

    Cry baby.

  37. I enjoyed the lecture.

    One item that caught my attention early was the item from Al Gore’s film. “0% of peer reviewed articles disputed the five tenets.”

    That kind of percent agreement raises my suspicion. I would expect at least 10% disagreement on any issue in peer reviewed publications. The norm for me is one third disagreement. 0% says to me that something is going on here. The statistics are skewed in some way.

    Since this is a study of corruption, it appears that this 0% result is a good lead in to examining corruption in the academic, peer-reviewed publications. I worked in that world for a few years, and I saw corruption in the way people competed for funded research leading to publications.

  38. Tim Wu says:

    Nah, I agree with Lessig’s take on Google. Its not the only reason, but to my mind the speed and sense of neutrality of Google made a difference, esp. as compared with approaches like Yahoo’s.

  39. I enjoyed the lecture.

    One item that caught my attention early was the item from Al Gore’s film. “0% of peer reviewed articles disputed the five tenets.”

    That kind of percent agreement raises my suspicion. I would expect at least 10% disagreement on any issue in peer reviewed publications. The norm for me is one third disagreement. 0% says to me that something is going on here. The statistics are skewed in some way.

    Since this is a study of corruption, it appears that this 0% result is a good lead in to examining corruption in the academic, peer-reviewed publications. I worked in that world for a few years, and I saw corruption in the way people competed for funded research leading to publications.

  40. lukethelibrarian says:

    You quote Dr Drummond Rennie’s concern that “we are now discovering a vastly more important problem [than the “chainsaw massacres” of science]: the massive bias and distortion of the published evidence by researchers and sponsors, both influenced by money.” There is another aspect to this complicated picture: the ways in which the scientific/technical/medical (STM) publishers themselves, and the STM publication process, can also be biased and distorted by the influence of money, and the impact this bias has on the body of published evidence and the validity of meta-analysis or systematic reviews which form the basis of evidence-based medicine. In short: in basic research, some experimental results tend to demonstrate the experimental hypothesis and others tend to demonstrate the null hypothesis, and to show a truly valid “big picture,” a meta-analysis or systematic review should include all of the above. The problem is that there is a “publication bias” in favor of research that has positive results (i.e. demonstrates the experimental hypothesis) and against research that has negative results (i.e. demonstrates the null hypothesis) — that is, research that shows what *doesn’t* work is less interesting to publishers, and therefore doesn’t get published as readily. So if a meta-analysis or systematic review of the research is based upon the *published* research (which it will almost always be, as non-published research ends up in a drawer somewhere), it tends to be distorted or skewed toward the positive results. The growth of Open Access publications or CC-licensed repositories for research might help to address this problem over time, but the solution must go further and touch upon the way that selection for publication (and in *which* publication) also influences funding, tenure and promotion at research institutions. For more information, see Sutton AJ, Duval SJ, Tweedie RL, Abrams KR, Jones DR, “Empirical assessment of effect of publication bias on meta-analyses.” British Medical Journal 10 June 2000 (doi:10.1136/bmj.320.7249.1574); in addition to “publication bias” see also the terms “reporting bias” and the “File-Drawer Problem”.

  41. We seem to accept that all corporations will act against society, and then want our ‘leaders’ to stop them “at the gate”.

    I would like to take a step back and ask:

    Why do corporations, especially as they succeed, tend to take courses that do not serve the consumer (citizen)?

    Is it impossible to construct an organization (whether corporate or governmental) that continues to serve only the consumers (citizens), even as it grows?

    Why do small groups (say on a deserted island) not attack each other in such blatant ways? What changes as the number of humans increases?

    If some humans collectively purchased some land and capital (Sources of Production) dedicated to being a true utility for the public, what would they need to do differently to insure the cooperation would continue?

  42. Brian R says:

    First thought- you have two terms for types of people at the school- “Pathological” and “Pick up a phone”. Wouldn’t it be better if they were both adjectives- such as “pathological” and “apathetic”, for example?

  43. Szocske says:

    It might be specific to non-native English speakers, but IM-talk spelling can really break my concentration while trying to follow your argument.
    I sure hope your new constitution won’t have 2 much of it in it 🙂

  44. Alex says:

    Minor point – I don’t think you meant to say that zero % of the 1000 papers questioned global warming – that sounds like they were blindly toeing the party line.

  45. Steven Devijver says:

    Why can you report on claims of medical research that’s being corrupted and at the same time virtually rule out the possibility that climate research is not. Many climate scienists say they don’t really understand our climate at all yet “most” of them are prepared to make bold statement about its future.

    Is it according to you possible that some percentage of the currenty available climate research studies have been influenced by corruption?

  46. Memo to Lessig, if you’re actually reading: Observe the comments above.

    Now, here’s a link to the study.

    The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

    “The 928 papers were divided into six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position. Of all the papers, 75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.” (my emphasis)

    THEY WON’T READ IT! I could cut-and-paste the whole thing into the comment-box, AND THEY STILL WOULDN’T READ IT!


    Not one person is going to say: “I found it hard to believe, but I examined the primary evidence, and I realized I had been ill-served by the conventions of media reporting which mandate “balance” between peer-reviewed science and industry flackery”.

    If they doesn’t tell you something very important about the limitations of wonkery, well, I don’t know what more to say.

  47. Wow, I’m always amazed at the clarity and passion of your writings and lectures. Well done.

    I must admit that my own feelings about the political process in the United States have grown to near complete apathy, caused in no small part by the realization that both parties view the political process as a game which is won or lost, not as a process which is important to build and maintain the kind of free society that the founders might have envisioned. In the last ten years, I’ve seen a near complete erosion of idealism in politics: the idea that a political party (or even an individual candidate) actually stood for a particular principle is simply gone from society. When the Attorney General writes opinions which call not only basic constitutional rights into question, but rights which have been a part of our legal system since Magna Carta, how are we to maintain any facade of confident belief in the operation of our government?

    The thing I find most disturbing about our society is how few people seem to be angry about the state of politics. Most seem willing to file behind one party or the other. Most of whom remain vote for whomever they think is the lesser of the two evils, and quite frankly, no matter who they vote for, they are probably mistaken. Recently I had the opportunity to reread JFK’s 1961 Inaugural Address:

    It made me sad for two reasons. The first is simply that the bold themes, the lofty ambition, the grand view of the future is so completely absent from all modern politics. But the more distressing is the skepticism I would undoubtedly feel if I heard a politician utter these words today. Like Sen. Sununu in your story, I simply could not believe that any politician uttering such a thing could be sincere in his principles.

    Ultimately, if your lecture has a flaw, it must be that it doesn’t actually go very far in helping people like myself find a course of action that helps promote the kind of reform that we all see as being necessary. Failure is failure after all, and the only kind of endeavor that isn’t blunted by failure is the unthinking, irrational, cult behavior that we are mostly supposed to oppose.

  48. Hon says:

    Consensus is for politicians. Science does not require any consensus.

    All it requires is a single scientist in a lab testing a falsifiable hypothesis to produce a verifiable result that can be replicated.

  49. Chris says:

    Money is just a way of keeping score. Corruption as a f($) is an oversimplifcation.

    Race, ethnicity, religion, educational background, family/friend relationships, socio-economic class, etc. are all factors that determine the amount of access to politicians, leaders of industry, etc. Money just happens to be a simplifying currency.

    Instead of money, Professor Lessig, you had educational prestige and press notoriety that got you access to politicians to discuss copyright issues. Those are much more nobler assets than a suitase of money, but they can also be bought through money, time and sweat.

    The solution to these forms of corruption, seem to point to organizational structures that close any gaps between the gains of the individual and the gains of society. Any misalignment leads to corruption. Fairness seems to come only where everything is perfectly calculated.

    A doctors salary should =effort spent helping patients+efforts spent doing administration/overhead that helps patients +effort spent training/learning about the best therapies-cost of anything that doesn’t help patients – cost of misinformation/imperfect information, etc….as you can see, money have a anti-corrupting factor too but the equation is very tough to write.

    How to get institutions/individuals/tools to be so incredibly fair…that sounds like the a religion, rather than the structure of the modern world. Shining the light is good. But it’s important to realize that money can be democratizing as well as it makes politicians more blind to race/religion and all the other factors of corruption that are always there.

  50. lars says:

    Very clear and inspiring lecture. Even though you excuse this exercise by saying you’re just beginning to flesh out what you know, it serves a purpose of getting each of us that watches this to understand what you want to do and want to follow this story as it develops.

    I wanted to point out if you are’t already aware of these sites:

    I started thinking of your conclusions at the end of tradtional path of reform inside the institutions being probably less effective than externally imposed transparency and consensus catalysts. death by a thousand papercuts.

    there is a book called “the logic of political survival” that says political leaders corrupt the “selectorate” to win the electorate.

    I also smiled when you juxtapose Bush with a child molester. very funny.

    is the purchasing of carbon shares by individuals a modern non-violent version of the “propaganda of the deed” anarchist slogan?

    Is there a way to re-introduce the logic of egoistical monetary gain back into the corruption equation that subverts it’s orginal intention?

    The cognitive distortion you describe is scary. What are the top 10 areas that show the most distortion between “common sense/indenpendant research” and “public perception”?

    thanks for the brainfood, please excuse the uncoherent regurgitation.



  51. staypuftman says:

    I know you might not want to hear it but the copyright piece of your lecture is disproportionately weighted to the rest of the information you present. Each one of those case histories should be same length. I think the introduction could also use a better presentation of the information we are about to be hit with – it comes too abruptly I think. You are tossing around such big ideas that you need to build a staircase to them or people will not be able to grasp what you are saying.

    Otherwise, an outstanding first venture into the world of corruption I would say. Those comments by HH, although a bit verbose, were fairly accurate. We do stand at an interesting point in history, where we can use technology to overcome corruption, or at the very address the fundamental problems from outside the system. Using a digital education service in place of regulation is at the heart of a true republic – and modern libertarianism, a topic I have gathered is close to your heart after watching many of your presentations.

    Best of luck as you wade through these murky waters,

  52. I second the request for a downloadable version of the video — Google Video caused my browser to crap out unfortunately; it’d be much easier to play externally in VLC, etc. Viddler is also a good choice for video hosting as they offer an easier download option as well as time-based tagging!

    Otherwise, very compelling stuff; looking forward to more!

  53. HH says:

    Who is minding the Wiki?

    Where is the Wiki discussion activity on the Corruption Lecture? The Wiki would be more productive if there were an orientation page and guidelines for contributing material.

    This Wiki is important for supporting Professor Lessig’s work, but the general Wiki phenomenon will become much more significant politically. An interesting way to interpret Lessig’s early ideas on anti-corruption reform is to attempt to answer the question: “What is the governmental equivalent of Wikipedia?”

    Internet-based reformers are in the process of moving from coffee houses (ranting blogs) to assembly halls (action-oriented collaborative facilities). Yet these virtual assembly halls are poorly constructed and inconveniently situated. We need to get the Lessig Corruption Wiki in order.

  54. Rodger Evans says:

    firstly, I really like the way you approached the definition of corruption. It is a term used frequently, but rarely understood. I’m a scientist, so I will stick to comments in this area: You were correct at stating that the problem are not those very loud cases of scientific fraud, but more in the small cases; that number by the hundreds. I have noticed that many groups are driven by the need to publish; weather it be good useful work or no, but there is a quota that most institutions require. This exists as well with news papers an well, so we see a company that writes the story and the reporter changes a few words and adds there name (remember the headlines “the suit is back” written by men’s suit makers.) Most of these problems can be fixed by transparency, and the the ability of comments; I would love to add comments to many a science paper!

    I think your talk goes well with one that I just saw, given by Dr. Richard Ernst (nobel in chemistry) called “the responsibility of scientists in our time”. As well, when I think of a political system designed to remove corruption, I recall Plato’s republic, where the rulers live in a communist fashion, without personal property (where the masses live in what one could think as a normal capitalistic life. The idea of removing personal freedom from the rulers makes sense (the more power, the less freedom..) As a modern idea, we should make the rulers live in a big brother house… combining gossip, politics, and TV into one odd ball…

  55. Ping says:

    (Oops, somehow this got posted on the wrong blog entry. It belongs here.)

    Larry, thank you for posting this lecture. I have thought a fair amount about this problem, as many people surely have, and it pains me to see governments repeatedly fail at simple logical reasoning, to see information distorted and decision-making processes distorted as they are. There are so many parts to this problem: the legislative system, elections, lobbying, and media reporting are popular political targets. But there is also the inability to grasp data (occasionally, brilliant instances of information visualization stand out), to correct errors (we are still a long way from effective public annotation and fact-checking of political statements and news articles), and to understand the structure of arguments (instead, the same arguments are repeated again and again in tedious prose).

    I am confused by one of your points. The retroactive extension of copyrights is one of the “easy cases” you mentioned — a case where the answer should be obvious. But was it not the Supreme Court that got this one wrong — the same Supreme Court that you present as an example of an institution that has successfully resisted corruption? What went wrong here?

  56. Mads Hobye says:

    Applause from me 🙂

    One idea came to mind, if doctors, lawyers and scientists are good people that gets influenced by money. What if they had the chance to add a disclaimer to their work saying what influences they got while making (e.g.) the article about a new drug and how it worked.

    I mean the same way that CC gave a common language to tell people how you were allowed to use your material. You could make a common language to tell people how they were influenced. It could be categories like:

    – The work is my personal opinion and point of view.
    – The work is my personal opinion and i have been supported by the following organizations
    – I have been hired by this organization to help them support their points of view.

    A little thought….

  57. Daniel Freiman says:

    I don’t know that you’re preaching to the choir, but you are preaching to the people who have the time and interest to sit down for an hour and watch this lecture. I understand that after filming a lecture, putting it online doesn’t magically make it shorter. But while this is a introductory lecture that most of my friends would understand, I doubt I could get any of them to watch it. If you’re looking to eventually turn this lecture into an argument for the public, it needs to be broken up into its component pieces. I don’t know if there’s any web-software that allows people to watch short 2-10 minute video segments and allows the users to see that they should watch prerequisite segments before moving on to later segments, but you might want to look into it. I’d offer to make it for you if it weren’t easier for you to run over the the CS dept and have it done locally.

    As to the substance, I don’t disagree with your copyright vs. gov pay/funding example, but I think you oversimplify it. There are a lot of difference between gov services and copyright terms so it makes sense that copyrights would be treated differently. For example, raising gov spending has an obvious quantifiable, cost to the taxpayer while extending copyrights has more subtle costs to the public. This creates a different political climates which effect the likelihoods of getting each law/funding being passed. Many people might try to exploit these differences in a counter argument. I think you’ll need to defend that some of the more obvious counter arguments aren’t the driving force here.

  58. J. F. Lawton says:

    I think it’s wonderful you have decided to tackle this issue. It may be more of a natural extension of your work so far than people might release. This is because the internet (and other new technologies) have provided new tools for fighting corrupt. And corruption is at the center of the copyright battle.

    Coming from a corrupt industry (Hollywood) and a corrupt city (Los Angeles) I’ve been exposed to a lot of corruption both in business, unions, charities and government over the last 20 years. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it and how to fight it, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts.

    The first thing is that to understand corruption, you need to define it as you did in your lecture. The problem is, I think you have it wrong. Or at least your chosen focus.

    Corruption is not about money. Yes, money can be a powerful tool used by corrupt people, but it is not the most useful or a even necessary tool. Large scale corruption almost always involves money, but it also almost always involves sex, ego, nepotism, cronyism, laziness and many other elements.

    The key element at the heart of corruption is dishonesty. It is a particular flavor of dishonesty: lying (or hiding the truth) in relation to one’s official capacity for personal gain. Corrupt politicians, businessmen, union leaders and even charity workers must be liars or hide the truth. The more effectively they do this, the more effective they will be to achieve corrupt ends.

    The second mistake you make is connecting the fight against corruption to whether something is good or bad for society and how bad it’s influence is. You imply that we should worry less about the corruption by film studios pushing for copyright expansion than in corruption involved in medical, legal or environmental issues.

    The problem with that thinking is that corruption in and of itself is bad for society. It doesn’t matter if it’s immediate impact is good or bad. (And often it’s short term impact can be for the good. As you mention, in the short term if Wikopedia took ads for one year they could make $100 million dollars and spend it on good works. But in the long term it could destroy it’s integrity.)

    Corruption is dangerous because it is a cancer. Let unchecked, it inherently spreads. Be it in a government, a charity organization or a business. The reason for this is corruption requires conspiracy. That is, corruption is defined by involving more than one person. Successful corruption always spreads by involving more and more people.

    This has certainly happened in the film industry in regard to the copyright issue. While corruption is nothing new in Hollywood, the money that film studios (and the international corporations controlling them) have been given by US copyright extension gives them more resources and more reason to push for further extensions. It motivates them to try to confuse the public about the real purpose of copyright (to protect artists, not corporations). It motivates them to try to change laws in other countries through deceptive arguments (fighting piracy) that are really just excuses for them to adopt US copyright policy (which is about stealing money from artists).

    The successfully corrupt executives orchestrating copyright extensions are promoted to more powerful positions, and find new areas to use their refined corruption skills and corrupt contacts. Politicians already corrupted into assisting those corporations with copyright extensions, are then likely to assist them in other corrupt enterprises, like tax breaks for film production (which are really about money laundering). Those politicians successfully corrupted are more open to being corrupted by other industries. And those employees working under corrupt executives, learn that corruption is the key to success. Union officials in Hollywood, who are supposed to represent artists, are corrupted into assisting the studios against artists interests. Corruption in those unions then spreads to pension funds, health care, and other important areas.

    Of course, that fact that successful corruption inherently leads to more corruption (like any virus, it require must spread to survive) applies to any industry or large organization.

    But corruption behind the copyright battle is particularly significant because it relates to the most powerful weapon to fight corruption:

    Easy access to the truth.

    This, of course, is something you have already done great work with during your previous two decades fighting for the internet and for true copyright with Creative Commons.

    Since corruption requires dishonestly, since it is always based on a lie, it is always destroyed by easy access to the truth. This is why the internet is so dangerous to corrupt people (thus the push to destroy net neutrality). The internet provides enormous tools to expose corruption.

    Only part of the copyright battle is about the entertainment corporations making money off of Mickey Mouse and other properties they already own. You are right in saying that that isn’t a big issue for society. But, as I have learned from your efforts with Creative Commons, copyright has been corrupted by the corporations from it’s original purpose into a means of controlling information. This is behind the battle over DRM over piracy and net neutrality and copyright extension. And as serious as issues of corruption is in medical areas, environmental, etc., nothing is more important to society in fighting corruption than making sure people have easy access to the truth.

  59. Von Lyman says:

    Great lecture. Very revealing.

  60. Peter Halasz says:

    Please dumb it down. I’m not sure who the original audience was, but for an Internet “meme” version, I’d like to see the lecture be more accessible (e.g. for ESL speakers, non university-educated people, and non-geeks) by dropping the “big” or confusing phrases such as “quid pro quo”, “expounding a constitution”, “function of money” and “</story>” etc. And re-phrasing quotes from the 19th century in everyday English after they’ve been said. I know these aren’t very difficult phrases or concepts to begin with, but you risk alienating the sections of the audience which aren’t familiar with them, or worse, just having them switch off. Steven Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time with only one (well known) formula between its covers. It can’t be too hard to give a one hour lecture without any legal jargon.

    Also there is confusion as to whether it’s targeted at the USA only or globally. Wages are in pounds, but “we” and “our” refers to US-Americans. Personally I’d like to see more examples from around the world. International listeners expect some US-centricness, but some confirmation that the lecture is also for the rest of the world would be good. E.g. please say something like “the supreme court here in America” instead of “Our supreme court”

    Some people have criticized your use of Al Gore’s global warming arguments, and I agree that you focus too much on Al Gore for this area. I’d much rather you took quotes straight from the IPCC reports.

    I’d be interested in what changes are already planned for the final release. Perhaps you could list some on the Wiki page. It’s a great lecture overall.

  61. Matt Weatherford says:

    I just saw your talk in Seattle Re: Google 2008 = Microsoft 1998 – great stuff!
    Definitely worth a friday evening…. 🙂

    This corruption lecture is amazing – great understanding of the problem (or at least a major,
    tangible aspect of it) and right sized to get a mental handle on it. Your supporting stories and
    illustrations are also very accessible. I think you’ll be able to appeal to a large audience with this

    Keep up the good work! I’ll try to do my part to push the norms in the right direction. Im inspired!

  62. Spiro Bolos says:

    Dr. Lessig,

    Overall, a thought-provoking talk, augmented by your inimitable style of presentation. I’ve been watching it on my video iPod and sharing it with my students. But I have to take issue with part of your piece on Al Gore’s book.

    For example, you state, “He [Gore] never once steps back and asks about the responsibility of those on the outside, in particular, the Democrats, who have done nothing to challenge this Constitutional excess by this president.”

    I think you’re creating a straw man out of Gore. Consider the following quote from The Assault on Reason:

    “The most serious—and most surprising—failure of checks and balances in the last several years has been the abdication by Congress of its role as a coequal branch of government” (235)


    “It is the pitiful state of our legislative branch that primarily explains the failure of our vaunted system of checks and balances to prevent dangerous overreach by our executive branch…” (236)

    Have I misinterpreted your argument?

    Thanks for everything. Please keep posting this wonderful material.

  63. Ed Fladung says:

    Larry, I happy to see you taking on this issue. I have one point to make vis-a-vis the money in politics. I have asked myself, where most of the money in politics goes and the answer I keep coming up with is advertising in the broadcast media. The broadcast media is a government controlled semi-monopoly using public resources that the government manages on behalf of the citizens. With the right push from an enlightened administration and a heightened public awareness of the issue, the solution would be to require the broadcast media as a cost of getting a license from the government to provide free air time to candidates. This would significantly lower the cost of getting elected and remove some of the pressure our elected representatives are under. I know this would be difficult since the media will not allow this issue to be brought up or discussed and would definitely penalize any elected official proposing this. What surprises me though is the fact that I have never seen this even discussed online. Iis this so unrealistic that it is not worth discussing? Or is it that we are all so framed by our corporate programming that we can’t see the obvious.

  64. Kate says:

    Terrific lecture. Your new focus is terribly exciting and I wish you great success in drawing popular attention to the issue.

    The idea the other poster makes (about air time and free broadcasting for candidates) is worth pursuing. Maybe a good way to strengthen the issue (and network) would be some sort of consortium of all the campaign finance reform and money in politics organizations. I’d be interested in any community/grassroots opportunities for involvement.


  65. Stephen says:

    First, I am quite enthusiastic about what you are tackling.

    Second, I would like to add to your thoughts.

    We have come to the conclusion in our country that money = speech. I believe that as soon as we dismiss the notion of money = speech, much of the task becomes easier.

    Let’s re-imagine the United States and imagine that much of the current uses of money in politics is banned. Why do we ban it? We ban it because we do not give Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg more political power than my mother, my brother or my son. Bill and Michael have more monetary power and more business power, but allowing them to bring their monetary power into goverment compromises the very notion of all men are created equal. I believe it would be very consistent with the constitution to ban the use of personal or corporate money in politics.

    Lobbyists should be allowed. Paid lobbyists should be banned.

    Let’s further imagine a more direct form of government. Rather than having my representative vote on FISA, allow me to vote on this bill directly, via the Internet. If I choose, I can allocate my vote to someone I trust. But, today, even though Nancy Pelosi is my representative, I do not trust her to cast the correct vote. In fact, I might allocate my vote to a non-political figure, but someone I could trust to advocate my interests and views. Maybe, I would trust a blogger who was very transparent about how they operated. Maybe I would like lobbying, if the lobbying was done on a blog to a trusted representative of mine who responded in kind by blogging their reaction to the lobbying.

    Reacting to your promotion of the Sunlight Foundation as an answer, I really do not agree. I certainly laud what they are doing, but I do not believe that some information reforms this system. I believe it is better, but how am I, a citizen, supposed to navigate more than 10,000 earmarks in a single bill? How am I as a citizen, supposed to understand the impact of over 10,000 paid lobbyists? Information is not enough.

  66. Davin says:

    If you call Global Warming and easy case you haven’t been paying attention. That is one area where the ‘evil’ voices may be right. Had it not been for that bit of pop science I would give this an A+.

  67. Eric says:

    We’re talking about corruption. Lets see if we can do some simple math for the liberal elites who know so much better than us and intend to use government to make us do what they know is good for us.

    1) Power corrupts. I didn’t make that up. I would think people smarter than me would have heard that.

    2) Goverment is power implies government corrupts

    3) More government = more corruption

    4) Less government = less corruption

    5) Please take all your liberal elite big government solutions, fold them 4 ways and put them where the moon don’t shine.

  68. Robert T Kowalski says:

    I loved the lecture and am very glad to have come across an inspiring leader and agent of change like you Larry!

    Corruption: why move to a federally-funded party/electoral system? There’s many examples globally that show it still does not root out corruption (though the US political system is unique..).

    Private money will try to find its way into the politicians/party pockets – whether directly or indirectly. People have circumvented much more complicated systems and laws than bannign private political donations

    This should be looked at from the point of view of mechanism design, in particular focusing on lobbying, although there is no clear-cut answer (& we’ll never find it). Looking towards the least corrupt societies in the world is needed – but the basis there is also cultural..

    As you mention, people need a defender of their rights. i.e. a form of ‘lobby’ on behalf of the People – not Corporations/NGOs. Overcoming the costs of mass communication, network effects, and pooling the common causes/interests into a single, or few strong organizations, is needed.

    In doing this education is a very important way to go (probably the best Long-term strategy) – K-12 reform, unified curriculum that educates responsible and aware citizens.

    It’s one of the toughest issues humanity has been trying to solve, and I hope you can change Congress – best of luck I support you all along!

  69. This is a very inspiring video. I just posted on this video (and its lessons for India and “transparency”) in my blog

    It drew a very strong reaction from one of our readers. See the “comments” section of the particular blog post.

  70. oliver says:

    Black markets are parallel economies or supplemental economies that exploit demands the legal economy doesn’t meet, and most of a entire nation can be complicit in one as clients. Opposing values, opposing cultures, a loss of confidence that the system is on track to fix a problem. We have allegiance to a system, but only zealots are ready to go against the wall when the revolution comes or the mob takes over. A lot of corruption is bet hedging. Think of the decision to serve as a witness in the absence of witness protection, or how the culture of willingness to serve as a witness changes over time as a result.of sociopathy and government response. Traditionally we behave better and show a stiffer upper lip to hardship during wartime, and in part I think that’s because it’s easy to believe during war that the government is your guarantor. Absent that, testifying is liable to feel like a less worthy investment or risk to your person.

  71. Marat says:

    Less government = less corruption
    No. Less governmen = big corruption 🙂

  72. Brett Glass says:

    Professor Lessig recently accepted a $2M contribution to his center at Stanford from Google. Now, he and the inside-the-Beltway lobbying group “Public Knowledge” carry water for Google by promoting its agenda and interests, exactly, in DC. How is this not corruption?

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