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Lawrence Lessig’s Campaign Reform Push Comes To A Head This Friday

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Lawrence Lessig, an American intellectual and activist, recently launched a political action committee (PAC) called Mayday PAC, with the goal of electing members to Congress who are in favor of campaign finance reform. The group is currently raising money, with a fundraising deadline of July 4 rapidly approaching.

Raising money to combat money? Metallica’s early canon comes to mind. But all the same, Lessig is determined to raise large sums of money — with matching donations on tap if he meets his goals. The group blew past its first $1 million goal, and now has bigger aspirations.

I caught up with Lessig via email to ask him a few questions about the effort, especially in regards to how lowering the influence and heft of money in our politics would impact the technology industry. Big tech companies are incredibly wealthy, after all.

If you want to ask the man a question yourself, Lessig will be taking questions on Reddit later today.

TechCrunch: Your self-imposed funding goal of $5 million in a month is an audacious effort. Why use an aggressive money-raising timeframe, when you could have afforded yourself, and your cause, more time?

Lawrence Lessig: The urgency is to be able to pick the districts and begin the campaign. (Plus I am a bit of a drama queen).

TechCrunch: The Mayday PAC website states that “In our money-driven system, the Internet will always belong to the highest bidder.” Ironically, it seems at the moment that the FCC itself is wielding much authority over the future of the Internet’s makeup. How can raising money to pare back the impact of money influence things like the FCC’s proposed and flawed net neutrality rules?

Lawrence Lessig: We have no protection for network neutrality because of the enormous influence of cable company’s money in the political system. Cable’s lead lobbyist is the most powerful lobbyist in DC. The Dems are not going to get out in front on this because of the punishment they would face in the fall from cable money. And the Republicans are enjoying the great benefit from being NN’s clearest opponent. If NN is your issue, then this is why you should see that politic$ is your issue too.

TechCrunch: It seems that wealth technology companies and their workers, instead of donating money to try and curtail the impact of money, could instead — and I’m not advocating for this — deploy capital directly to the capitol, collecting an essentially guaranteed return for a modest cost?

Lawrence Lessig: They could, and if we don’t change the system, eventually they will. But I think what many in the tech community want is to change the rules of the system, so this isn’t how the game gets played. They (and we all) should see that the nation need innovators innovating in the market, not innovating on K St (the home of lobbying). They should be focused on finding new and better iWidgets, not new loopholes to add to scam the tax code.

TechCrunch: In cases of things like the coming 2015 spectrum auction, what impact would having less money in politics have? It’s easy to see a potential impact of political finance reform in other areas, but some parts of technology regulation and the like are often esoteric, and ruled over by independent agencies.

Lawrence Lessig: I think you mean “independent” agencies. The idea the FCC is “independent” is a joke. It may well be independent of the president — how else could a presidential appointee announce a policy inconsistent with the president’s own policy — but it is completely DEPENDENT on the communications industry. Someone needs to do a chart of the path of FCC commissioners, because this is its business model — spend a couple years regulating, and then cash out with lucrative lobbying jobs for the industry you’ve just regulated.

That’s not to say that politic$ pervades every level of the agencies. I think the FCC has a huge staff of smart technical sorts. But we have allowed the influence of money to dominate here like everywhere in DC.

TechCrunch: We’re seeing a spate of mega-mergers among large cable companies that are, in some cases, also ISPs. Would gutting some money from our political system allow for a more active federal government when it comes to heeding anti-trust concerns?

Lawrence Lessig: Antitrust is hobbled for more reasons than money, but that’s part of it. The cable mergers are terrifying — we’re going to have one or two companies covering 70+% of households, claiming the First Amendment forbids their regulation (when they edit bits (by blocking or speeding up certain traffic) they say that’s the same thing as the NYTimes editing content, so the First Amendment should protect them against anti-bit-editing regulation (aka, network neutrality regulation), AND the First Amendment gives them the freedom to use their resources to promote or oppose political candidates. The platform through which we access everything controlled by a single (or two) corporate entities with the constitutional right to engage in politics and the constitutional freedom from any effort to assure neutral access.

TechCrunch: Have you seen strong donations from the technology sector so far? If so, why do you think technology specifically is interested in your project?

Lawrence Lessig: Yes. Because geeks have a sensitive bullshit meter and [ “ways of DC” == “bullshit” ].

TechCrunch: Are you going to make the funding goal? $12 million is a quite a lot of money, but without the $5 million in matching funds, your war chest is sizably diminished. Also, what has been the average donation size to Maday so far?

Lawrence Lessig: If we meet the goal Friday, I’m pretty confident about the match. The challenge is Friday’s goal. If we can get the net to go crazy between now and then, then we can make it easily. If we can get the net to go crazy while on YouTube, then with some other things we’re working on, yes, easily. But the key is to unleash the dogs seeking sanity in DC. They should scare up the million or so we’ll need.

I don’t have stats for this round. For the last round, average was $87, median was $50. I’d be surprised if it was much different this time. We’re about to post a cool iterative graphic of the contributions.

TechCrunch: And finally: How big can this get? If you raise the $12 million, how big do you go in 2016?

Lawrence Lessig: If we raise the $12M AND WIN, then we go up by an order of magnitude * 5, at least. But let’s take first steps first.

IMAGE BY FLICKR USER ROBERT SCOBLE UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0 LICENSE (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)