Brill’s Much Ado About Zittrain

Earlier this week, Emily Brill published this story at the Daily Beast:

Harvard vs. Steve Jobs

Harvard Law star Jonathan Zittrain is an influential critic of Apple—so why doesn’t he talk about donations to his research center from Steve Jobs’ competitors? Emily Brill investigates.

Brill’s investigation centered on the notion that when Zittrain wrote an op-ed critical of Apple in the Financial Times, he didn’t disclose the fact that his academic home, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, receives funding from some of Apple’s competitors, such as Google and Microsoft.

Now, while Zittrain’s op-ed doesn’t (and couldn’t) list any/all the of the funding sources that might — might — present a source for a conflict of interest, Berkman is quite clear about its funding sources, and a simple Web search would provide someone that information.

Nonetheless, Brill seems determined to explore (and accuse) whether Zittrain — and the Berkman Center generally — succumbs to the pressures of funding sources in forming research conclusions and policy opinions.

Of course he doesn’t.

I’ve known Zittrain since my participation in the 2007 edition of the Oxford Internet Institutes’s annual “Summer Doctoral Programme,” which was held at Berkman that year. It was a wonderful experience, and I benefited directly from Zittrain’s public critique of my research presentation (both its content and style). Since this initial interaction, I’ve helped organize a book talk by Zittrain at Yale Law School, chaired panels with him on reputational privacy online, and participated with him on a panel addressing privacy issues related to Library 2.0. In the end, I think I can consider Jonathan both a friend and a colleague.

Even with my short time knowing Zittrain, Brill’s suggestion that Berkman’s funding relationships with companies that happen to compete with Apple — coupled with Apple’s notable absence from the list of sponsors — is what prompted him to write an op-ed, let alone his book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, is extremely far-fetched. While I’ve had reason to criticize Berkman on other occasions, I don’t question their intellectual integrity, nor any of their founders or faculty members.

I’ll leave it to others to criticize the attempted takedown. (Update: Here, too)

But I do want to comment on my own connection to Brill’s article.

I met Emily Brill this February at the A2K4 conference at Yale Law School. She noticed in my bio that I was the Microsoft Resident Fellow at the Yale Information Society Project, which got us to talking about the issue of corporate funding of academic centers. She mentioned, generally, this issue of whether Zittrain should have disclosed Berkman’s funding sources in his op-ed, and I related some of my reflections on how the Yale ISP wasn’t impacted by funding it had received from companies like IBM and Microsoft. Technology companies, generally, respect and appreciate the academic and policy work that comes from centers like these, largely because so many of the companies have their roots in academia. And, not surprisingly, many of the companies own policy people are graduates of these universities and law schools, and had affiliations with places like Berkman and the Yale ISP.

I did relate an anecdote, that I told her was fuzzy in my memory banks, about how some folks at Microsoft weren’t thrilled with a white paper that was written by ISP fellows that was critical of Microsoft’s position regarding open document standards. As far as I knew, a Microsoft employee that the ISP had contact with merely expressed his displeasure, but nothing came of it, and the ISP never changed anything in the article.

We continued to chat generally about the nature of disclosure and possible influence by technology companies in scholarly research. I don’t recall precisely what I said, but I’m confident in stating that I highly doubt Zittrain or Berkman would compromise their intellectual standards merely to get funding.

After this meeting in February, Brill and I had a few additional phone conversations on the topic, where she sought my general opinion on Berkman, Zittrain, etc. I shared my general thoughts, and I recall noting that the kind of expertise necessary to really understand and address emerging technology policy issues is condensed in a relatively short list of (very intelligent) people.

I recall suggesting that a complementary project would be to map out how these individuals have moved between academia, industry, advocacy, and government roles — perhaps creating a map how of people of Zittrain’s ilk move between these spheres in overlapping ways: one year you’re teaching, the next you’re working for a tech company, the next you might be at the FTC, and often with the same people. Kinda like these cool maps of overlapping spheres of executives and board members in the corporate world.

Brill apparently hasn’t pursued that project, and instead kept her focus on criticism of Zittrain. A shame, as I think my suggestion would’ve made for a much more interesting — and informative — piece.

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