Photo Credit: Copyleft
Since it’s election season we thought we’d take a break from artists’ rights today and see what one of the “usual suspects” is up to this elections season. In this case we look at Lester Lawrence Lessig III the piracy-defending-party-pokering-Harvard law professor and former Anton Scalia clerk. Looks like he has a new Silicon Valley billionaires “grassroots” PAC that is aimed at getting “big money” out of politics by injecting “big money” into politics. No this isn’t an Onion article although it should be.
MayDay Pac: Has Lawrence Lessig Become Silicon Valley’s Karl Rove?
Short answer: NO. I doubt that Rove would be foolish enough to personally and repeatedly taunt a sitting house committee chairman from his personal twitter account. A Chairman that may very well survive the election. But I’ll get back to this in a minute.
Ever since Lester Lawrence Lessig III launched the MayDay PAC -” the PAC to end all PACs”- I’ve been watching this with some interest. Mostly because the whole proposition itself seems pretty suspect. In order to “reform” campaign finance, in order to get billionaires and corporate interests out of politics he went out and collected millions from billionaires and corporate interests? Huh? Especially suspect since one of the biggest donors (Peter Thiel) appears to oppose all campaign finance reform.
Support from Thiel for Lessig’s campaign to reform campaign finance laws is not only eyebrow-raising because of his libertarian politics — the Libertarian Party has called for the repeal of all campaign finance laws since at least the 1970s — but also because of a political treatise he penned in 2009 declaring, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
This is classic Lessig: co-opting a seemingly populist cause like copyright reform, while faithfully carrying forward a corporate agenda. In this case the MacGuffin is campaign finance reform but to my eye the real plot line involves a clever new way for Silicon Valley to influence (or threaten) our elected representatives with BIG money. Just look at the list of donors especially the big donors. It’s a who’s who of Silicon Valley and anti-copyright ideologues. No surprise the serial innovator of artist rip-offs, Sean Parker (Napster, Facebook, Spotify), tops the list at $500,000! But something else becomes readily apparent when you dig down deeper into the midsize donors: there sure are a hell of a lot of Google employees who’ve donated to this PAC. So many that one shouldn’t be faulted for questioning whether this was coordinated. I’ve helpfully compiled all the donors listed on the FEC documents into a single Excel file that you can search and sort on 22 fields. Don’t believe me? Dig in and draw your own conclusions.
Excel here: MayDay PAC addresses redacted
What is Lessig up to here? On the surface he claims to be trying to clean up politics and get the “dark money” out of campaigns. But is he really? Here are some funny things I’ve noticed about the PAC.
1. Lessig promised total transparency and was supposed to list the names of all his donors. And then he didn’t. Even the Sunlight Foundation (he is a board member) had to note the irony. http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2014/08/06/mayday-pac-sheds-light-on-largest-donors/
2. Of the more than 65,000 donors Lessig claims, less than 10% have been disclosed. (Lessig never really disclosed many of his donors and instead left it to the FEC and the FEC doesn’t require disclosure of small donors.) This still means there are 59,000 undisclosed donors to a PAC that said it was gonna disclose it’s donors! MayDay PAC doesn’t know who it’s donors are? Why? Either you are against “anonymous money” in politics or you aren’t? Isn’t this your homework Larry?
3. I conducted an experiment with the MayDay PAC website and it’s payment processor. As a result I believe that you can donate repeatedly to the PAC using fake names and addresses and they will not catch it. I have concluded the name and address a donor provides to the MayDay PAC does not have to match the credit card! Thus it seems it’s possible that a big donor could avoid disclosing by repeatedly donating $100 under different names and addresses. I’m not familiar with FEC laws but this doesn’t seem right.
4. On at least one occasion the experiment involved donating money using a non-U.S. address while simultaneously using a VPN to make it appear like I was in that foreign country. Didn’t the Watergate break-in have something to do with foreign donations to the Nixon campaign?
5. Why accept BitCoin donations? The whole point of BitCoin is it’s untraceable virtual cash. Given the fact it’s the de facto currency of the “dark web” it’s by definition “dark money.” How does this fit with the MayDay PAC dedication to “transparency” and opposition to “dark money?”
6. With all the Silicon Valley money in this PAC we can only assume they had some very bright people build their website. Why would they leave what appears to be a “back door” (some would say barn door) for anonymous donations? Was this intentional?
7. This is totally subjective but it seems incredibly bizarre that they would raise more than half their 5 million in small online donations over 4th of july weekend? Much of that during the hours most people are cooking out and watching fireworks?
8. Why is there now a “missing” 5 million dollars in the PAC? Were they counting donations they hadn’t received? Did they count some of the big matching donations as part of the original “small donors?” Why are public statements at odds with FEC documents? http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/09/13/1329533/-Mayday-PAC-staffers-comment-on-missing-5-million-critics-holding-their-noses-and-more
Finally shouldn’t a PAC that claims transparency have a transparent process for how they decide to spend their money? Who decides which candidates to support? What is the process? For instance in California’s 17th district Silicon Valley is backing the tech-buzzword-spewing Ro Khanna against the old pro labor democratic stalwart Honda. Will MayDay PAC let their rank and file donors decide who they back? Or will they just follow the big Silicon Valley money and back Ro Khanna?
So if this PAC isn’t really about transparency, campaign reform or even the wishes of the little donor what is it about? Sadly I think this is about Lessig establishing himself as some sort of King Maker. The guy who doles out the Silicon Valley money. When I read Lessig or listen to him speak I don’t get the impression he is a humble guy. This is a guy that wants to be in politics (or on the Supreme Court like his former boss Antonin Scalia). That is why he’s out there personally taunting candidates that he is spending against.
This is not the mark of a true behind the scenes power broker like Rove. When an artists’ rights blogger who knows nothing about PACs and politics can find this many loose threads in an hour or two it’s definitely amateur hour.
Ultimately this whole thing is a tragedy. Thousands of small donors have been tricked into supporting a “grassroots” campaign finance reform PAC that is not really what it seems. I commend any real attempt to get big money out of politics and return to a government of the people, a government where the rich and powerful don’t get to choose who becomes Mayor, Governor, Congressman, Senator and President. But MayDay PAC looks like the opposite of that. This appears to be yet another clever way for the rich and powerful to co-opt a populist movement and use it to pick a candidate that will look after the narrow commercial interests of Silicon Valley. Lessig should be called out for perpetrating this intellectual and political fraud on the good people of this country.
PS. Lessig has a new book called “Lesterland.” It’s a sort of fable written in his overly pedantic style that tells the story of “Lesterland” which is just like the United States with it’s 311 million citizens but an elite 150,000 pick the candidates. He calls this elite “Lesters” because there are about 150,000 people named Lester in the U.S.
Including the author Lester Lawerence Lessig III.
Does anyone else find it incredibly weird? It’s at least confusing. Is he calling himself an “elite” or is he manifesting some sort of weird form of self-loathing? Maybe there’s both a “Larry” and a “Lester” inside the old noggin. “Lester” supports “Citizens United” and was a clerk for Justice Scalia. “Larry” is a liberal law professor and has started an Anti-Citizens United PAC to contain “Lester”. This will make a great movie one day. Maybe as good as the Roy Cohn movie.