Lawrence Lessig exposes a rigged system

Why do Americans have such a raw telecommunications deal? A recent talk by famed advocate of Internet freedom Lawrence Lessig reveals the awful truth

I had a cathartic experience last week courtesy of Lawrence Lessig, legendary open source champion and Harvard law professor. Though the choice of Lessig as keynote speaker at Storage Networking World in Orlando was odd -- he wasn't going to be talking about storage, after all -- he delivered an electrifying speech on broadband, Net neutrality, God, the universe, and everything. Suffice it to say, I was fired up.

After the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision last week to overturn the FCC's authority to enforce Net neutrality, I was peppered with requests for a response, probably because I've taken a hard line defending Net neutrality before. I should have had something to say, but a thousand obligatory words decrying the court's decision seemed pointless. I figured a response would come to me eventually, and it did -- about 60 seconds into Lessig's talk.

[ Read Paul Venezia's classic letter to the enemies of Net neutrality. | The normally snarky Robert X. Cringely has some serious thoughts about the awful Net neutrality ruling. ]

There's no way to do justice to his presentation in print. Fortunately, you can watch the whole thing for yourself, and I encourage you to do so right now. It's nearly an hour long, but worth every minute -- seriously.

At times, it has seemed like there was no point in assailing the enemies of Net neutrality. Even the FCC itself seemed to believe that Washington wasn't ready for a coordinated effort to free us from the shackles of the carriers. No matter the logic, the proof, or the reality of the situation, the companies who pour buckets of money into Washington seem to have it all locked down so tight there's no room even for discussion.

As Lessig points out, that's true inside the Beltway -- but those of us on the outside can keep pushing the issue. In fact, that may be the only way to turn this tide. And oh, but does that need to happen.

Some of the more shocking points in Lessig's talk revolved around the reality of broadband access speeds, pricing, and openness around the world. Oft-used comparisons between the United States and South Korea or Japan are generally dismissed as non-comparable given the population density of those countries -- so Lessig chose to examine France.

In France, Internet access generally costs $33 a month, provides 20Mbps fixed broadband to the home, and includes unlimited local and long-distance calling to 70 countries, plus HDTV and even wireless voice and data access through cooperative agreements. That's about what AT&T charges just for the 3G data plan on an iPhone in the United States. France also has open network legislation in place. Yeah, that's right: France. (Désolé.)

I added up what I pay for access here in the States. Between HDTV and data through Time Warner, voice through FairPoint, and wireless through AT&T, I pay over $350 a month for slower access, though some of that cost is due to a business-class Internet circuit. If I delete that extra cost (yet it's 10Mbps -- half of the French example), I'm still at $275 per month. Worse, the carriers are looking for a way to charge higher rates for certain data and retain carte blanche to do whatever they like with my traffic. That's just insane. Yet it's reality in the United States.

Lessig goes beyond the simple fact that the United States is getting screwed out of the future by the big ISPs: He conjures the specter of an Internet Patriot Act. Just as 9/11 provided the Bush administration with an opportunity to ram through the Patriot Act and gain vast new powers to spy on American citizens, a total crash of the Internet (caused by accident or design) could be a pretext for hurriedly passed legislation that grants the U.S. government sweeping Internet monitoring powers by a fearful and technologically irrelevant Congress.

If that's not enough, he brings it all home by discussing the disturbing Beltway economy that underlies all of these decisions: the lobbyists who pour so much money into politics that it's no longer a matter of right or wrong, only how much.

I realize that assessment goes well beyond tech issues, even for The Deep End. But if there's one thing that all technologists know, it's that fixing the problem at the core is always the best solution. Addressing the symptoms alone won't get us anywhere.

Viva la revolucion!

This story, "Lawrence Lessig exposes a rigged system," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in Net neutrality and read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at


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