Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig on why AI and TikTok are causing a free speech crisis for the internet

Today, I’m talking to Harvard law professor and internet policy legend Lawrence Lessig. Larry is a defining expert when it comes to free speech and the internet. He’s taught law for more than 30 years at the University of Chicago, Stanford, and Harvard; he co-founded the Creative Commons in 2001; and he’s published a dozen books since 1999 delving into the intersection of communications, money, the media, the internet, and democracy itself. 

Larry is a hero of mine. I have been reading him since I was in college, and so much of his work has directly shaped so much of my thinking. It was an honor to spend some time with him. But I have to tell you, this episode is a little looser than usual. See, the Decoder crew was in Boston last week for the launch of Harvard’s new Applied Social Media Lab, which Larry is a part of. The launch event for the lab was a glitzy affair featuring a number of guest speakers, including former President Barack Obama, who was set to join Decoder and talk about how social media can actually benefit democracy and how we might build toward that goal.

Unfortunately, President Obama had to drop out of the event due to illness. We are working with his team on rescheduling that conversation, which we’re excited to have for you in the future. Thankfully, Larry was available to fill in, and he was more than prepared to dive deep on the big issues the lab was designed to address and that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. As you’ll hear us say, there’s a lot to unpack here. 

You’ll hear us agree that the internet at this moment in time is absolutely flooded with disinformation, misinformation, and other really toxic stuff that’s harmful to us as individuals and, frankly, to our future as a functioning democracy. But you’ll hear us disagree a fair amount about what to do about it. 

Here in the United States, the First Amendment puts really strong protections around speech and heavily limits what the government can do to regulate any of it — even outright lies, which we saw with both covid-19 and the 2020 election. But because there’s so much stuff on the internet that people do want taken down, a number of strategies to get around the First Amendment have cropped up. For example, there is one law that is really effective at regulating speech on the internet: copyright law. Filing a DMCA claim on something is one of the fastest ways to get it removed from the internet, and there’s a whole folk understanding of copyright law, which is often wrong, that has sprung up in the creator economy. 

For instance, Larry and I talked about the current and recurring controversy around react videos…