Jonathan L. Zittrain wears many hats. An expert on the Internet, digital technology, law, and public policy, he regularly contributes to public discussions about what digital tech is doing to us and what we should do about it—most recently around the governance of AI and the incentives that shape major social media platforms.
He holds several roles, all at Harvard, reflecting his many converging interests. He is a professor of international law at Harvard Law School, a professor of public policy at its Kennedy School, and a professor of computer science at the university’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He’s also cofounder and faculty director of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
In his various capacities, he has been tackling many sticky cyberpolicy issues over the past 25 years.
Jonathan L. Zittrain
Professor of international law, professor of public policy, professor of computer science
The Future of the Internet—and How to Stop It (Yale University Press, 2009)
“Lately, I’ve been working on the question of how to regulate and govern generative technologies—that is, technologies like the Internet, the Web, and generative AI that allow contribution and development from nearly anyone or anywhere,” Zittrain says.
He’s also curious about what role public interest plays in tech’s evolution, which these days is largely a product of market forces.
“I’m deeply interested in whether and how fast-growing and rapidly deployed technologies such as AI large language models and new distributed activity networks like those of Web3 should be governed or regulated.”
CompuServe launched his career
Zittrain first got involved with computers in 1983, when he was in high school, and his parents gave him a US $99 Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, the first 16-bit home computer. Using a hand-me-down television set as a monitor, and a dial-up modem, he connected the computer to CompuServe, one of the first commercial online service providers. “It was a pre-Internet online community-of-communities,” he recalls. “There were no graphics on the screen back then, just text.”
CompuServe charged a flat fee per minute and the user paid any additional phone charges. Zittrain ran up a $300 bill on his parent’s credit card the first month, he says, and his parents threatened to disconnect him.
But when he posted a farewell message on CompuServe, one of the company’s chief system operators offered him free connection time in exchange for becoming an assistant sysop, a person who runs a computer server. “I gave an enthusiastic Yes! before he could change his mind,” Zittrain says.
In that role, he helped resolve disputes among users. Later, he became chief administrator for CompuServe’s private Sysop Forum, where members discussed how to manage their own forums.
“Remarkably little is settled around the wise use of technology.”
Zittrain also learned to code, writing a host program for a bulletin board system in TI Extended Basic.
These early experiences led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science and artificial intelligence at Yale. He continued to code, mostly in Lisp.
His interest in how online communities might govern themselves led him to study law and public policy. In 1995, he earned a law degree from Harvard Law School and a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School.
“Helping people resolve the disputes that arise in rolling conversations—when intensity of emotion does not necessarily track to the gravity of the issue—is still a central concern for me today,” says Zittrain.
A place to explore the online
For Zittrain, the Berkman Klein Center remains the hub for most of his activities.
It has spawned programs such as the Institute for Rebooting Social Media, a research initiative aimed at addressing misinformation, privacy breaches, harassment, and content governance on social media platforms.
“Cofounding the Berkman Klein Center with Charles Nesson a quarter-century ago has given me—and I hope many others—a starting place to be challenged and inspired,” Zittrain says. Over the years, the center has hosted hundreds of faculty, staff, fellows, and affiliates from over 40 countries, he adds. “We’ve helped start numerous institutions and initiatives and then gotten out of the way. Whether it’s producing code for GitHub, publications, or podcasts and videos to the world at large, or bringing together people who would never have otherwise met—and who might even be skeptical of one another—we’ve tried to bring new perspective and energy to the cultivation of a digital world in the public interest.”
This year he is teaching courses that address the ethical implications of artificial intelligence systems and whether and how to govern digital platforms.
“Students explore different frameworks for understanding the evolution and use of technology in society, such as what this technology is doing to us and how we might together affect how it works,” Zittrain says.
Zittrain conducts research on what’s happening across the sweep of digital technology and writes about his findings in blogs, magazines, and books. In his 2009 book, The Future of the Internet—and How to Stop It (Yale University Press), he examined many of the problems that still affect us today, such as massive security breaches, ubiquitous surveillance, and social media that foments harassment and spreads lies. He predicted, correctly, that those problems would only get worse.
Providing free access to books and legal decisions
Much of Zittrain’s work looks at ways to make information more widely available.
In that vein, he has helped launch several organizations that provide free access to information. These include the nonprofit Creative Commons, a global nonprofit that enables sharing and reuse of content and knowledge. Another is the Open Casebook series, a joint project of MIT Press and the Harvard Law School Library that offers open-source digital legal textbooks for free.
Zittrain oversees the Harvard Law School Library, whose open source tools built by its Library Innovation Lab have helped preserve the pioneering URL naming convention, commonly known as permalink. Perma Links, administered by Perma.cc, archive Web pages and create permanent links to them, ensuring the information will remain available to courts, researchers, libraries, and others.
“We need more lawyers and public policy experts who have a grounding in computer science, so they understand the complexities and challenges of monitoring and moderating large-scale social media forums.”
The library’s CaseLaw Access Project has digitized more than 6.5 million U.S. state and federal court decisions and made them available for free. It also gives free access to case textbooks that typically cost students upward of hundreds of dollars every semester, Zittrain adds. “We aim to democratize this information, which also allows faculty to be more creative with their use of several textbooks at once.”
His legal work includes working on Eldred v. Ashcroft, a Supreme Court case, challenging the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which sought to create a retroactive 20-year extension on U.S. copyrights. The case was argued in October 2002 and decided the following January.
“This case was one of the first efforts to see how easily people could build on others’ work online,” says Zittrain. Unfortunately, his team lost the case 7–2.
How to get involved in tech policy and legal work
What are some career possibilities for people looking to enter tech policy and law?
Remarkably little is settled around the wise use of technology,” Zittrain says. “For example, for products that can be controlled by their manufacturer—like smart home devices and new cars—it’s unclear what the manufacturer’s responsibilities are. Is it the responsibility of the vendors, the insurance companies, or the regulatory sector to ensure privacy? And whose responsibility is it when something goes wrong? Every one of these companies will need their own thoughtful experts to help research and write, debate, decide, and implement policies.”
These gaps between new technologies and their fair, safe use create job and career opportunities—just as CompuServe’s online forums created the need for sysops and sysop forums.
“We need more lawyers and public policy experts who have a grounding in computer science,” says Zittrain, “so they understand the complexities and challenges of monitoring and moderating large-scale social media forums like Facebook and Twitter. Or of not doing so.”
Given the complicated and profound problems these new technologies create, he says, those who design and build technology should consider more than just the engineering aspects of their work. They should also study the philosophy and ethics of what they are creating as well as their responsibilities to the consumer.
Having coding experience is helpful for those interested in getting involved in technology policy, Zittrain adds.
“Knowing how software works and doesn’t work, both abstractly and in reality, is hugely helpful in thinking about what kinds of digital futures are possible—and what means of technical, political, and social intervention are available to get there.”
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Daniel P. Dern is a freelance journalist. He writes about the careers of engineers as well as a variety of technology topics.