Cyberlaw Scholar to Lead Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Jess Koehler

Jonathan Zittrain
May 05, 2014

When Jonathan Zittrain helped found the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, 16 years ago, it was an "awfully niche and narrow" research center, he says, housed in "an office in a hallway." Within a few years, he says, it became clear that the scope of the Internet—and of the center—would be far broader than the founders had predicted.

This July, Mr. Zittrain will become chair of Berkman’s Board of Directors, on which he has served since 2000. He will lead a research center that has spawned projects such as the sharing of songs, courseware, and other materials through Creative Commons copyright licenses. The center is now studying the future of the ownership of the web.

"The position is fascinating because it’s a time of great change for the Internet in policy, engineering, and relevance, especially with the real question about who ‘owns’ the Internet," he says. "The important thing for Berkman is that it is able to provide some mortar for some of the independent bricks out there of people and organizations doing good work around monitoring and strengthening the Internet."

Mr. Zittrain, who is 44, is vice dean for library and information resources at Harvard Law School, and holds faculty appointments in the law school, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. But because it has been a while since Mr. Zittrain was deeply involved with the Berkman Center, the first step will be getting reimmersed. That is necessary because the center, which began as part of the law school and is now university­wide, "has gone from a size where we could know quite quickly what was going on to something wonderfully kaleidoscopic," he says.

Mr. Zittrain plans to use his connections to draw additional professors as affiliates or board members. He is especially seeking people in computer science, both at Harvard and elsewhere. Now that the cost of collaboration has gone down, he wants multiple experts answering questions like "How’s the health of the Internet today?" and exploring the issue of how the Internet survives and who holds responsibility for maintaining it.

That focus is in keeping with his previous projects on Internet health, including one that showed that 73 percent of the links in the Harvard Law Review don’t work anymore. The project, he says, came out of a desire to help preserve legal scholarship that might otherwise be "rotting."

"It’s an example of what we want to do, of academia being able to play a role in improving the resilience of the Internet, and the functioning of scholarship," he says.

As chair, he will also keep an eye on the structure of the center itself. "Any organization faces questions about size, and when do you start to lose some of the wonderful idiosyncrasies of that organization," he says. "It’s important to balance the need to innovate and to really do new things in the space and also to have sufficient stability so that not everything is a fire drill."

Mr. Zittrain praises William (Terry) Fisher, who is stepping down as chair after 12 years, for recognizing that "when there is too much start-up culture, it can be hard to really concentrate over a longer term." Mr. Fisher pioneered the model, which Mr. Zittrain plans to continue, of Berkman’s being an incubator for projects, such as Creative Commons, that eventually become independent spinoffs.

Ultimately, independence remains a key value for the center, says Mr. Zittrain, who opposes having a "central orthodoxy" politically and says that topics like "Internet resilience" and online education are simply areas of research. "If there’s any unifying theme, it’s that we should be looking at the ways in which the Internet can serve and represent the public interest and the public good," he says. "And we need to recognize that even that ‘theme’ is defined differently by different people here."