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

It is an impressive legacy. Berkman has helped shepherd copyright law into the digital age through academic papers, books and domestic and international testimony, and then created innovative licensing agreements to ease the process. It formed the Internet Safety Task Force with MySpace and 49 state attorneys general to identify technologies to protect kids from online predators. It has tackled the scourge of computer viruses, malware and spyware plaguing Internet users with the formation of the initiative to put a lid on purveyors of so-called badware.

Meanwhile, it has helped shape the debate on "net neutrality" — the concept that all network providers should treat digital data exactly the same — currently being debated at the Federal Communications Commission and in Congress.

Along the way, the center has worked closely with Vint Cerf, one of the Internet's founding fathers, who advised on; Jimmy Wales, co-founder of popular website Wikipedia, on driving debate over the Internet's future; and Lawrence Lessig, the legal scholar at Stanford Law School who helped shape modern copyright law.

"One of the great values the Berkman Center brings is research into issues that consumers should care about, and will care about, in the years to come," Wales says. "Network neutrality, global Internet censorship, spyware."

Fighting the good fight

Berkman, above all else, has been a valuable steward against Internet abuse, Cerf says.

Perhaps that is most apparent in Berkman's work as a watchdog for the security and safety of Internet users, say federal regulators and computer vendors.

"No university has a center more dynamic and deep than Harvard has in Berkman," says Reed Hundt, former Federal Communications Commission chairman. "As difficult as it has been to advocate good ideas with the (Bush) administration and courts as currently constituted, we can count on Berkman fighting the good fight for years to come."

It isn't always on the winning side. The center played a key role in Eldred v. Ashcroft, the case that challenged the constitutionality of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which heightens penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet and extended U.S. copyright terms by 20 years. Lessig was lead counsel in the case before the Supreme Court. But it did not agree, in a 7-2 decision in 2003.

"We don't always solve the problems, but often organize and facilitate the hard conversations that lead to solutions," says Berkman managing director Colin Maclay.