Berkman Center pioneers steer the course of cyberspace

Some of the most important issues in technology are being debated — and defined — in a yellow wood-frame house on the edge of Harvard Law School's campus.

Inside the 3,100-square-foot cottage, technology executives and academics gather to argue, debate and set policy about the Internet's toughest questions. Is the Internet bad for democracy? Should all Internet traffic be treated equally? What happens when much-praised "open" systems are abused? When and how should copyrighted material be shared online?

The conclusions reached at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society have a far-reaching impact on public policy in the USA and abroad. Even more impressive — the Berkman Center has been a major force for 10 years, an eon in Web time.

"We wanted to establish a beachhead for the open principles of the Net at Harvard and extend them to the university and developing world," says Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson, who co-founded the center in 1998 to help shape the policy and legal developments of cyberspace.

Now, with the imminent retirement of Bill Gates, the recent departure of Meg Whitman from eBay and uncertainty over the future of Yahoo, the center is attempting to grapple with where the Internet is headed and how it affects people. Two academic books from Berkman scholars explore the impact of the iPhone and so-called digital natives on the Internet.

Center co-founder Jonathan Zittrain, in his new book, The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It, cautions the very thing that makes the Internet great — its innovative nature — is being hindered by proprietary devices like the iPhone.

"Devices like iPhone are incredibly sophisticated, but they can be programmed only by their vendors and can be confining," Zittrain says. "We don't want to sacrifice fundamental openness on the Internet."

The digital generation gap

Berkman Executive Director John Palfrey posits the digital revolution's most enduring change is neither the new business models nor Google's search algorithms: It's the massive generation gap between those who were "born digital" and those who were not.

Palfrey's forthcoming book, Born Digital, is an offspring of the center's extensive work on "digital natives," children who were born into and raised in the digital world.

"We're talking about the future behavior of human beings on the Internet," says Palfrey, who is head of the Harvard Law School Library. "Digital natives use technology to either be more productive or distracted. The challenge is making the most of (their skills)."

As the dot-com frenzy peaked in the late 1990s, Americans began to grapple with the Internet as a social force and what it meant for privacy, business and the law.

Since 1998, the Berkman Center has built the cyberequivalent of a Dream Team. Through private donations, grants and fundraising, the 65-person organization — buttressed by more than 100 students and researchers — has assembled an impressive lineup of contributing inventors, legal scholars and entrepreneurs who recognized the technical and legal inadequacies of the nascent Internet ecosystem.

Center takes law into the digital age

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