Why the internet matters: a talk by Jonathan Zittrain

In a salutation to the newly-named Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, and a salute to the new and old members of the community, co-founder and Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain asked his audience during a talk last week, “Why does the internet matter?” The answer, it seems, quite fittingly parallels the history, mission and ethos of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University.

According to Zittrain, it’s a story of weirdos that began with the invention of the internet in the mid-1900s. From its launch, the internet was aimed differently from proprietary networks, which sought to control and wall off their gardens. Instead, the internet was a cobbled-together experiment by a group of academic researchers who rejected regime structures and preserved an experimental spirit that invited sharing and open access.

Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95

Credit: Jon Chase

Miraculously, this open environment thrived and generated a crowd of like-minded and playful network nerds, whose energy manifested itself in all layers of the internet. This “generative” spirit, a term used by Zittrain to mean the promotion of innovation and disruption, is in the technological backbone of the internet, which has no central server but instead allows anyone to connect via the nearest node. It’s visible in the early groups that helped to maintain and improve the internet. As David Clark once said of the standard-setting Internet Engineering Task Force: “We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.”

According to Zittrain, it’s also the same ethos that fostered the invention of Napster, the growth of the personal computer, and the one-man band that founded OpenSSL, a software library that grew to be used by two-thirds of web servers. Such a generative environment is unique, Zittrain has said, because it is built on the collective illusion that the system is never fully complete and there is no central authority. Instead, it’s the public that can be trusted to protect, and invent good uses for the new technology.

“So it’s weird, the status quo,” said Zittrain. “And that weirdness is in the bones of technology, it’s in the engineers who helped make it, and it’s in many of the uses of the technology as well.”

Of course, that’s not to say that the technology is perfect, Zittrain said. Revelations of bugs, vulnerabilities and human error can challenge the arguments for an open internet, especially as technologies become more centralized.

Nonetheless, openness, weirdness and big-thinking remain vital for innovation and help to shape the past, present and future of research institutions like the Berkman Klein Center.

Pivoting to the Center’s work, Zittrain mentioned a few projects along the Center’s timeline that have held true to these values. For example, in 2002 after a long-winded battle in the courts that culminated in a Supreme Court decision extending the life of some copyrighted works by 20 years, an early member of the Berkman Klein Center community, Lawrence Lessig, began what is now Creative Commons. The project set about creating the tools that could enable creators to freely share their copyrighted works with the public. Starting with just 50 million Creative Commons-licensed works in 2006, the number burgeoned to 882 million licensed works by 2014.

Global Voices, now a standalone organization, was also once a project begun at the Berkman Center. While the site currently curates, verifies and translates trending news stories in 167 countries around the world into more than 40 languages, it began as a tool for anyone in the world with basic technology to describe their environment. From creating platforms for open dialogue to monitoring the obstacles to an open web, the Berkman Center went on to create the Internet Monitor to track the censorship practices of various countries around the world and the efforts of repressive regimes, corporate firms, and intelligence agencies to filter content on the internet.

These projects, said Zittrain, are only brief illustrations of the kaleidoscopic diversity of work that invigorate the very audience members sitting in the room, and those of the larger Berkman Klein Center community. The role of academia will become increasingly important as the mercurial virtual space becomes our new permanence and proprietary players increasingly dominate. Today, Facebook can predict dating couples before the individuals themselves, and can affect our mood by curating the content on our newsfeeds. The openness of the internet is being replaced by a network of tethered appliances that create an Internet of Things generating piles of data; this system invites not only profit-making institutions to seats of power, but locks the crucial raw data behind closed doors that are inaccessible to data scientists and researchers.

What would happen, asked Zittrain, if the spaces where we talk, work and play are dominated on all layers by proprietary players? Whose responsibility is it to watch the new decisionmakers? As he once wrote in “The Future of the Internet,” the generative pattern is a recurring one. How, then, can we ensure that in the next iteration, the values we hold dear will remain vital to those organizations, corporations, and governments that have the privilege of understanding the data, and shaping our technology?

“A realm in which ideas that seem off-the-wall and contentious might be worth entertaining before dismissal. These are the kinds of things that are worthy of discussion. That’s what you have at the Berkman Klein Center.”

For those hoping to understand how the Center is answering Zittrain’s question, the Berkman Klein Center will be hosting an Open House on September 23, 2016 at 5:00 pm in Milstein West, Wasserstein Hall.

In July 2016 the Berkman Center for Internet & Society became the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society in recognition of a generous gift from Michael R. Klein LL.M. ’67.