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Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig at Seattle's Town Hall last night for a screening of 'Killswitch, the
Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig at Seattle’s Town Hall last night for a screening of ‘Killswitch: The Battle to Control the Internet.” Photo by Alex Garland.

It’s not often that the talk after a film is the highlight of the night.

But judging by audience reaction, that was the case Thursday as Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig stepped onto the stage at Seattle’s Town Hall.

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Lawrence Lessig in Seattle Thursday night. Photo by Alex Garland.

The audience roared and lept to its collective feet as Lessig placed his Mac on the lectern. The evening’s first course may have been the awarding-winning documentary, Killswitch, but for many in this audience, Lessig was the real attraction.

Occupy.com billed the event as the Seattle premiere of Killswitch: The Battle to Control the Internet. It was also a fundraiser for the New Hampshire Rebellion as well as conscious-raising for I-735 (target, 2016 general election) and Honest Elections Seattle.

If you’ve followed the ins-and-outs of network neutrality (I learned the term was coined by Columbia Law professor Tim Wu), know the Aaron Swartz story, and understand why Edward Snowden is living in Russia, then you know the facts that underpin Killswitch.

But Killswitch is far more than a dry recitation of technical history. Director Ali Akbarzadeh, producer Jeffrey Horn, and writer Chris Dollar have created a human-centered story. A large part of that connection comes from Lessig and his relationship with Swartz.

The film is unabashedly populist; its message centers on keeping Internet infrastructure free from monopolistic control, both corporate and federal. Wu shows how America — and politicians — have an “affection for information monopolists.”

With blunt force, the three filmmakers pound home their disdain for the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Northwestern University professor Peter Ludlow details problems with terms of service, the “little thing where you have to check the box before you can use the software.” None of us, he explains, actually reads the terms but there are “thousands” of things that could put us in violation.

Take Seventeen magazine, whose audience is young female teens. If you agree with the terms of service, you’re asserting that you are at least 18 years old. “If you are 17 years old, and you are reading Seventeen magazine online, you are a felon,” he said on screen. And the live audience tittered.

“If everyone is a felon, then who do we prosecute? That’s what’s dangerous … prosecutors can pick and choose,” Ludlow concluded.

A ‘Green Primary’

Lessig began his talk by relating a story that would get most Americans to nod, yes, that’s wrong.

It’s the story of Dr. Lawrence Nixon, a black man in El Paso who was disenfranchised in 1923. That’s when the Texas legislature ruled that only whites could vote in the Democratic primary. “The only vote that mattered,” Lessig said as he explained that in 1923, Texas was a single-party Democratic state.

“This is a system of inequality,” Lessig continued, laying the groundwork for his argument that the electoral system in the United States is broken.

Financing, he contends, is a form of primary. It’s a filter, a weeding out. Today we don’t have a white primary, we have a green primary.

We hear a lot about the 1%, and this event was sponsored by Occupy.com. But when it comes to the finance primary, Lessig contends that influence is considerably narrower.

And the numbers back him up.

In 2014, 5.4 million Americans gave at least a dollar to a political campaign. That’s only 1.7% of Americans, Lessig said. “The top 100 donors gave as much as the bottom 4.75 million,” he continued.

But how much do you have to donate to be “relevant,” to have your concerns heard? If that contribution is $5,200, then there were 57,874 influencers in the 2014 campaign.

“That’s 0.2% of America” who influence the first stage of the electoral process, leading to the names on the ballot. The choice offered to the 99.8%.

That 0.2% has meaning in Hong Kong. China has proposed a nominating committee that would determine who can run for Hong Kong chief executive. It represents 0.2% of the Hong Kong population. The reaction there contrasts sharply with here: tens of thousands took to the streets.

‘Better than throwing my shoe at the TV’

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The scene, and the message, outside Seattle’s Town Hall last night. Photo by Alex Garland.

While we were waiting for the doors to open, Peter Zanello asked me to sign the I-735 petition. I replied that I don’t sign initiatives.

“I don’t ask people to sign them, either,” he said with a grin. “This is my first time.”

Why the change of heart, I asked.

“It’s better than throwing my shoe at the TV.”

Zanello’s message permeated the event: do something. Lessig is nothing if not a motivational force of nature. His passion is palpable.

Author Marianne Williamson shared her experience running for Congress. Donate, even if it’s only a few dollars, she urged. Talk to your neighbor. Doorbell for a candidate. Call your elected representative.

What’s next for ‘Killswitch’

Killswitch weaves together ancient and recent history in a way that makes heady issues like network neutrality and SOPA connect with non-technical people. Ditto caring about AT&T’s claim to first amendment protection from FCC regulation. Heck, it might even help them understand the angst surrounding Citizens United.

Killswitch took top honors for best editing of a feature documentary at the 2014 Woodstock Film Festival. Wider release plans are in the works, including streaming. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here is the trailer for the film.

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