Image: Flickr/Fred Benenson
Several years ago, the late internet activist Aaron Swartz had a conversation with one of his mentors, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, that would change Lessig’s future. At the time—2007—Lessig was one of the nation’s top authorities on internet policy and digital copyright law. But at a tech conference in Germany, Swartz challenged Lessig to reevaluate his life's mission.
“How do you ever think you’re going to make any progress on these issues so long as there’s this corruption in the way our political system works?” Swartz asked, Lessig recalled in a recent interview with Ben Wikler, a radio host and political activist who worked closely with Swartz.
“This was Aaron, this was the way he worked,” Lessig said. "It was never, ‘This is what you should do.’ It was, ‘What about this? Shouldn’t you be thinking this?’ And it made you recognize that if you wanted to be the person you thought you were, you had no choice but to yield.”
Swartz, a celebrated young computer programmer and internet activist, committed suicide on January 11, 2013. He was facing a federal prison sentence on felony data-theft charges for downloading academic articles using MIT’s network. Swartz had been charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a controversial 1980s-era law originally designed to defeat WarGames-style attempts to break into Cold War-era government computer systems like NORAD.
The late activist is the subject of a new documentary called The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.
Shortly after his conversation with Swartz at the conference in Germany, Lessig stunned the tech policy community by announcing that he was going to stop focusing on digital copyright issues, after concluding that the corrosive effect of money on politics had to be addressed before reform on any other issue was possible. He returned to Stanford, where he was teaching at the time, and began working on political corruption.
Lawrence Lessig. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Ed Schipul
“This issue is critical for people on both the left and the right,” Lessig told me after the publication of his campaign finance reform manifesto, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It. “We can disagree about a lot of issues, but we ought to agree that we should not have a Congress that is fundamentally corrupted by special interests and crony capitalism.”
Today, Lessig is a man on a mission, and his latest campaign finance reform effort may be the most unusual political action committee ever launched: Mayday PAC, "a Super PAC to end all Super PACs." Lessig and his allies formed the group with the goal of raising $12 million by this year’s midterm elections to support five candidates for Congress who are willing to push a campaign finance agenda if they’re elected.
This week, Mayday PAC is racing to meet a July 4 deadline of raising $5 million. As of Monday, the group had raised $2.3 million in pledges from more that 19,000 donors.
Lessig has attracted the support of several well-known figures in the technology world, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. Prominent New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson has also joined the effort. "We're going to use money to defeat money," Lessig told Wikler. "We're going to use big money to defeat big money."
After Swartz's death, Lessig asked himself: “What is it that we can carry forward?"
“Some people thought it was to get the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act right, or to get rid of NSA surveillance, or to get open access to all scientific knowledge. And those were important issues to him, too, obviously. But the one that was relevant to me was the issue that he made me take up as the purpose of this next chunk of my life. I was thrown to thinking about it in this less academic, more practical way, after the tragedy of Aaron."
"We're going to use big money to defeat big money."
Campaign finance reform has been a recurring issue for decades, but every attempt by Congress to reduce the influence of money on American politics has fallen short. The most recent blow to campaign finance reform came in April when the Supreme Court struck down a decades-old limit on the total amount an individual can contribute to federal candidates in any two-year election cycle. That ruling, in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, followed the High Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns.
Lessig argues that the vast flood of money gushing into elections has corrupted the system by making politicians beholden to large financial contributors, rather than their constituents or the nation as a whole. The problem isn’t suitcase-full-of-cash acts of blatant bribery, which are increasingly rare, but rather an addiction to raising money. Some politicians spend up to 70 percent of their work time trolling for cash, because nowadays that’s the only way to win.
Lessig and his allies are pursuing a grassroots approach. And they’re appealing for support across the political spectrum with a compelling argument. Money has so gummed up the system, Lessig says, that no real reform is possible on any issue, left or right, until campaign finance reform is achieved. Nearly two-thirds of Americans cite “government ethics and corruption” as a “very important” issue, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, ahead of taxes and national security.
It's an extremely ambitious goal, but however improbable the odds, Lessig refuses to give up hope. "Hope is the one thing that we, as Aaron's friends, failed him with, because we let him lose that sense of hope," Lessig said during a recent TED talk. "I loved that boy like I love my son, but we failed him. I love my country, and I'm not going to fail that. We're going to fight this battle, however impossible it looks."