Harvard Firebrand Larry Lessig: Tax Facebook To Save Democracy

My friend Larry Lessig is a trailblazing Harvard Law professor and internet policy legend who co-founded Creative Commons, revolutionizing the way creators share and license their work globally. As a relentless advocate for transparency and fairness, he has taken on political corruption and the manipulative power of social media platforms, serving as the attorney for whistleblower Frances Haugen, who exposed Facebook's harmful practices.

And so, when he began his talk on stage in New Hampshire, at the NH Civics series, it was a bit surprising to hear him begin his talk with the history of tobacco.

"It's easy to forget that there was a time when smoking was uncomplicated. People liked it. No one had a fear about it. Indeed, some thought that smoking was actually helpful for asthma and other lung diseases. It was the age of innocence for cigarettes, and in that age, great entrepreneurs were incredibly innovative," said Lessig. 



“But, now with more than a hundred million dead… tobacco’s history seems to be an ominous warning.

“In the 1950s, first the British and then the Americans began to release robust research reports demonstrating the devastating health effects of cigarettes. By the early 1960s, no one could doubt that they were correct," warned Lessig. But "rather than accept the science, tobacco companies continued to press their claim that cigarettes were not harmful.”

Of course Lessig wasn't here to talk about smoking, he’s here to talk about social media. "Facebook's business model, driven by the relentless pursuit of engagement, has fundamentally reshaped how information is consumed and shared,” warned Lessig.

“Their  model, which prioritizes advertising revenue above all else, exploits user behavior to maximize time spent on the platform, often at the expense of democratic values and societal well-being."

Lessig said Facebook engineers were tasked with growing engagement to bolster revenue and advertising. “Advertising revenue is what drives our media today. All of the harm that these platforms are causing is being caused to make what we used to call Madison Avenue, but what is now Silicon Valley, insanely rich,” said Lessig.

"Their model is to force engagement. And if that's their model, they will do it by exploiting our weaknesses. it's very simple to make technical decisions that amplify terrible content.  And those weaknesses turn us into a very unattractive democracy."

As counsel to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, Lessig has been on the inside of the Facebook story. "What I don't understand is the idea that we need to destroy the fabric of our democracy so that Mark Zuckerberg can be even richer," he said. "I don't understand why we are sacrificing all that we are sacrificing, just so [Facebook] advertising revenues can continue to climb."

So, what does Lessig suggest we do? “We could address the problem of the business model. Here’s a word you can’t utter in Washington, but let me utter it now: You could tax engagement.

“For example, you could have a quadratic tax on engagement. If it’s one unit of engagement, the tax is one. If it’s two units, the tax is four, and so on. This way, the tax increases exponentially, and platforms like Facebook might then encourage users to spend less time on their platforms.”

And how would that work? "The point is that the tax would change the incentives for these platforms. Right now, their business model is focused on maximizing engagement to sell more ads, which often leads to promoting the most sensational and divisive content. By imposing a tax that increases with the level of engagement, platforms would have a financial reason to discourage excessive use and the spread of harmful content."

Also, “We need to develop regulations that do not violate fundamental principles but can ensure that platforms do not amplify harmful content just for engagement. Even simple measures like slowing down the reposting of content can significantly reduce the spread of misinformation.”

Reforming or retiring Section 230 may be a logical next step. “The reality is that the conditions that made it make sense to have Section 230 in 1996 no longer exist,” he said.

Lessig ends with a hopeful, almost romantic call to action: “The most important response right now is for us to learn how to love our neighbor again." Indeed. 

2 comments about "Harvard Firebrand Larry Lessig: Tax Facebook To Save Democracy".
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  1. Jenny Mirken from, May 20, 2024 at 2:11 p.m.

    Great article, thank you. I shared a similar idea recently but I think we can make it even simpler than Mr. Lessig's quadratic formula -- just "tax" their revenue. (Revenue is essentially a measure of engagement anyway.) Let's call it a "kids tax" and I'd propose 1% of revenue is reinvested in America's high schools. Bring back afterschool programs and art and music -- in short, give kids more to DO instead of lingering on social media hours a day. Our schools need the money and Meta has it. A friend compared this to the tax that casinos pay back to the Las Vegas community, which is a fantastic analogy. Take. The. Cash.

  2. Edward Omeara from MediaHound, May 20, 2024 at 2:32 p.m.

    You can view Larry's speech here, starting ~ 11 min mark. Worth the watch.  But, will any of you MediaMaven's act on it? 

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