Question: Who's younger than Bill Gates and holds Microsoft's fate in the click of his mouse? Answer: A 36-year-old Harvard prof who's written some of the hottest prose ever penned on cyber-porn - Lawrence Lessig, the newly appointed "Special Master" in the government's antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft Corp.
Lessig's role is crucial because Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson has tapped the professor to be his computer-savvy adviser on the thorny technical and legal questions raised by the Justice Department in its antitrust case against Microsoft. The Justice Department says Microsoft - which is a partner in MSNBC - has been abusing its dominance of operating systems, and violating a 1995 consent decree, by requiring computer makers who have licensed its operating system to also install its Internet Explorer browser
On Thursday, Jackson issued a preliminary injunction barring Microsoft from bundling the browser with Windows, but said he will wait for further study before making a final ruling. Jackson appointed Lessig to study the dispute. And Lessig is to report back to the judge by May 31. According to Jackson's order, the professor shall "propose findings of fact and conclusions of law for consideration by the Court" and be paid $250 per hour for the trouble.
And while the judge - not the professor - will have final word on the case, legal experts say Lessig's conclusions will weigh heavily. That's because the questions raised by the dispute are very technical, and Jackson isn't. For instance, Microsoft has contended that to separate the browser from the operating system would cause damage to the operating system, and may not be feasible.
"To the extent the special master makes technical recommendations, I expect the judge is not going to overturn it, especially on the extent to which the browser and operating system are independent," said attorney Ian Feinberg, a partner with law firm Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich, in Palo Alto, Calif.
Feinberg specializes in high-tech litigation.
A RISING STAR
So who is Lessig? He's one of the fastest-rising stars in the hot new field of Internet law.
"I would say he is one of the top two or three" legal experts in the country on Internet law, said Mark Radcliffe, an associate of Feinberg's at Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich.
Radcliffe said he was told by Robert Clark, dean of the Harvard Law School, that Lessig was hired away from the University of Chicago last year to help bolster Harvard's reputation in electronic commerce law, relative to hot-shot Internet programs at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.
Clark could not be reached for comment Friday. Lessig, contacted through e-mail, declined to comment, other than to provide his age (six years younger than Gates, 42, the Microsoft chairman) and that he grew up in Williamsport, Pa.
When asked what he does outside of work, Lessig wrote: "There is no life outside of work."
"He is somewhat quiet, I would say almost shy in person," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Clearinghouse, a cyber-rights lobbying group that hosted Lessig as the featured guest at a seminar last month.
"He can be very engaging when he chooses to be, but his general tendency is to get analytical," Rotenberg said.
A CLERK FOR SCALIA
To be sure, legal analysis has carried him far. After graduating in 1989 from Yale Law School, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and then taught at the University of Chicago on constitutional, contract and his specialty - cyberspace law.
A 1996 article comparing restrictions on cyber-pornorgraphy to zoning laws in cities was cited by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in the Supreme Court's ruling striking down portions of the Communciations Decency Act.
And Lessig has become one of the most prominent critics of a futuristic Web technology called Platform for Internet Content Services, or PICS.
These are electronic tags, much like "V-chips" in televisions, that label Web sites as suitable for adults-only or general audiences. The American Civil Liberties Union has praised PICS for letting people choose what comes into their homes, according to the New Republic.
But Lessig, according to the magazine, calls PICS "the devil" from a free-speech perspective, because they give governments the power to decide what people can find online.
Lessig told the Dallas Morning News in October that he strikes a "middle ground" in applying the law to cyberspace. He stands between those who say traditional physical laws fit the new medium, and those who say the old laws don't work and should be abandoned.
But he's also railed against the potential for government as well as criminal abuse of cyberspace.
"The same technology that will make possible this experiment in humanity can also, if allowed, destroy the very essence of what now defines individuality," he wrote in the Yale Law Review.
A PROVOCATIVE COURSE
Lessig's first Internet-oriented teaching assignment at Harvard is a seminar in the upcoming winter term entitled "The High Tech Entrepreneur."
"The focus is on the market and cyberspace," according to the course description.
"It will analyze the chess-like machinations and legal combat that characterize competition in the information industry."
Surely, there are at least a few lawyers at the Justice Department and Microsoft who'd like to audit the class.