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Jonathan Zittrain

  • What the ephemerality of the Web means for your hyperlinks

    May 21, 2021

    An article by John Bowers, Clare Stanton, and Jonathan ZittrainHyperlinks are a powerful tool for journalists and their readers. Diving deep into the context of an article is just a click away. But hyperlinks are a double-edged sword; for all of the internet’s boundlessness, what’s found on the Web can also be modified, moved, or entirely vanished. The fragility of the Web poses an issue for any area of work or interest that is reliant on written records. Loss of reference material, negative SEO impacts, and malicious hijacking of valuable outlinksare among the adverse effects of a broken URL. More fundamentally, it leaves articles from decades past as shells of their former selves, cut off from their original sourcing and context. And the problem goes beyond journalism. In a 2014 study, for example, researchers (including some on this team) found that nearly half of all hyperlinks in Supreme Court opinions led to content that had either changed since its original publication or disappeared from the internet. Hosts control URLs. When they delete a URL’s content, intentionally or not, readers find an unreachable website. This often irreversible decay of Web content is commonly known as linkrot. It is similar to the related problem of content drift, or the typically unannounced changes––retractions, additions, replacement––to the content at a particular URL.

  • What are NFTs (and Why Should We Care)?

    April 21, 2021

    The non-fungible token (NFT) craze, which took off in 2020, appears to continue unabated. NFTs are digital “certificates of authenticity” that attach to creations like songs, photos and sports clips, and they can command hefty prices. An NFT of digital artist Beeple’s work brought in $69 million at auction last month, and other NFTs are being sold for similarly eyebrow-raising sums. And demand is showing no sign of declining despite what law professor Jonathan Zittrain in a recent Atlantic piece calls “their abstraction, their seemingly arbitrary valuation, and...the paltriness of the privileges they convey to their owners.” We talk to Zittrain about the future of NFTs.

  • iPhone 11 Pro showing Social media applications on its screen

    Should the internet be treated like a public utility?

    April 20, 2021

    At the annual Klinsky Lecture, Visiting Professor John G. Palfrey ’01, president of the MacArthur Foundation, says we need a regulatory regime for technology.

  • What Critics Don’t Understand About NFTs

    April 7, 2021

    An op-ed by Jonathan Zittrain and Will MarksLong before cryptocurrency speculators got involved, art prices were capricious—as the British artist Banksy no doubt understands. Recently, the work “Game Changer,” which he delivered unsolicited to an English hospital last year, earned it $23.2 million at auction—about $20 million more than experts had predicted...Last month a company called Injective Protocol took the spirit of “Morons” to a new extreme: After purchasing one of 500 prints of that work for just under $100,000, the company scanned the print and then destroyed it. A copy of the resulting digital file was then placed on IPFS—a distributed data-storage network whose initials stand for interplanetary file system—for anyone to see. A “non-fungible token,” or NFT, that points to the work was exchanged for almost 230 units of a cryptocurrency called Ether, about $400,000. All things considered, the purchaser of that token might have been in on the joke rather than the butt of it: Some NFTs are selling for tens of millions of dollars. These high prices suggest that regulators may not be moving quickly enough to protect unsuspecting investors. Impulsively buying GameStop shares on Robinhood is risky enough—the equivalent of placing a long-shot Kentucky Derby bet because the horse had a cool name. Worse still is losing your money because you didn’t understand what a horse race was and thought your wager was actually buying a horse.

  • The Internet Doesn’t Have to Be Awful

    March 9, 2021

    To read the diary of Gustave de Beaumont, the traveling companion of Alexis de Tocqueville, is to understand just how primitive the American wilderness once seemed to visiting Frenchmen...If Tocqueville were to visit cyberspace, it would be as if he had arrived in pre-1776 America and found a people who were essentially powerless. We know alternatives are possible, because we used to have them. Before private commercial platforms definitively took over, online public-interest projects briefly flourished. Some of the fruits of that moment live on. In 2002, the Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig helped create the Creative Commons license, allowing programmers to make their inventions available to anyone online; Wikipedia—which for all the mockery once directed its way has emerged as a widely used and mostly unbiased source of information—still operates under one...All of that began to change with the mass-market arrival of smartphones and a shift in the tactics of the major platforms. What the Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain calls the “generative” model of the internet—an open system in which anyone could introduce unexpected innovations—gave way to a model that was controlled, top-down, and homogeneous. The experience of using the internet shifted from active to passive; after Facebook introduced its News Feed, for example, users no longer simply searched the site but were provided a constant stream of information, tailored to what the algorithm thought they wanted to read.

  • Using a collective ‘virtuous cycle’ to break the pandemic

    March 3, 2021

    An op-ed by Isaac S. Kohane and Jonathan ZittrainMedical schools teach students a four-part “virtuous cycle” in which one step positively reinforces the next: Assess the patient. Implement a therapeutic plan. Assess the patient’s response. Revise the therapeutic plan as needed. In an emergency department, this cycle can be completed in minutes. In the cancer clinic, it can take months. Mastering the virtuous cycle is understood to be a central measure of medical competence. Yet when the patient is not one person but an entire society, this cycle is fractured and ad hoc in ways that would make any patient demand a new doctor. We’ve all been witness to — and victims of — this failure in the pandemic. The superb accomplishments of therapeutic medicine cannot address the population-based issues that Covid-19 has raised. But we can use the virtuous cycle as a way to switch gears to employ approaches drawn from disciplines like public health. For the first step, assessment, doctors were unable to define the most basic clinical course of severe Covid-19, despite billions of dollars invested to achieve interoperable electronic health records over the past 30 years. It took clinicians and researchers months to identify the interplay of inflammation, coagulopathy, and cardiac dysfunction, and then only through a jury-rigged combination of conference calls and small studies shared through disparate nuggets of preprints.

  • The Cybersecurity 202 Network

    February 24, 2021

    The Network is a group of high-level digital security experts from across government, the private sector and security research community invited by The Washington Post to vote in surveys on the most pressing issues in the field. Our regular surveys will highlight insights from some of the most influential people in cybersecurity...Camille Francois is the research and analysis director at Graphika, where she leads a data science and analysis team focused on analyzing social media manipulations...Francois is a cybersecurity fellow at the New America Foundation and an affiliate at the Harvard-Klein Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where she pursues her work on mechanisms to establish peace and security in the face of cyber conflict...Matthew Olsen is the president and chief revenue officer at IronNet Cybersecurity. He previously served as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, general counsel for the National Security Agency and in a number of leadership positions at the Justice Department. Olsen teaches at Harvard Law School...Jonathan Zittrain: Harvard law and computer science professor and co-founder of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Zittrain’s research interests include battles for control of digital property and content, cryptography, electronic privacy, the roles of intermediaries within Internet architecture, human computing and the deployment of technology in education.

  • Due Process

    February 17, 2021

    As recently as 10 years ago, Jeannie Suk Gersen was still telling people that the area of law she specialized in—sexual assault and domestic violence—didn’t hold much interest for the general public. A quiet corner of the profession, she thought. Remembering that now, she laughs. “But, you know,” she adds, “every area of law does end up moving into focus. Because, in the end, law is really about every aspect of our lives.” Which is partly why Gersen, J.D. ’02, has always taken it so seriously. “Words don’t just describe things,” she explains. In the law, “words actually do things.” ... “Jeannie is intellectually fearless,” says Bemis professor of international law Jonathan Zittrain. That’s a common sentiment among her colleagues... “There are a lot of people who are afraid to say things in our business,” says Learned Hand professor of law Jack Goldsmith, “and she’s not afraid to say what she thinks.” ... “Her whole response to Title IX has been very, very striking—and I think completely correct,” says Beneficial professor of law Charles Fried, who was Gersen’s teacher before he was her colleague ... Says her former teacher, Loeb University Professor emeritus Laurence Tribe, “I was always impressed by how both meticulous and yet unconventional her insights were. She would often come at issues in a kind of perpendicular way. Rather than finding a point between A and B, she would say that maybe that axis is the wrong axis.” ... “She has one of those amazing brains,” says Williams professor of law I. Glenn Cohen, who worked on the Harvard Law Review with Gersen. “She was a year ahead of me in law school, and we all regarded her more like a faculty member, even back then. She just seemed to know everything.”

  • Trump Isn’t the Only One on Trial. The Conservative Media Is, Too.

    February 9, 2021

    With the Senate’s impeachment trial starting oral arguments on Tuesday, Donald Trump now faces the possibility of real consequences for his role in inciting the Capitol siege of Jan. 6. But the apparatus that fed him much of his power — the conservative news media — is facing a test of its own. This might ultimately have a much bigger impact on the future of American politics than anything that happens to Mr. Trump as an individual. In recent weeks, two voting-technology companies have each filed 10-figure lawsuits against Mr. Trump’s lawyers and his allies in the media, claiming they spread falsehoods that did tangible harm. This comes amid an already-raging debate over whether to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prevents online companies from being held liable for the views expressed on their platforms...Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law School professor who studies digital media, sees a sea change coming. In the early decades of the internet, he said, most legal discussions were guided by a question of “rights,” particularly the right to free speech under the First Amendment. But in recent years, a new interest in what he called “the public health framework” has taken hold. “Misinformation and extremism — particularly extremism that’s tied to violence — can result in harm,” Mr. Zittrain said. “Given that there are compelling things in both the rights framework and the health framework, there’s going to be a balance struck.”

  • How a Democratic plan to reform Section 230 could backfire

    February 8, 2021

    Over the last few years, Section 230 of the 1996 US Communications Decency Act has metamorphosed from a little-known subset of regulations about the internet into a major rallying point for both the right and left. So when Democrats unveiled their attempt to overhaul the law on Friday, the technology world took notice. There have been other suggestions for how to change Section 230, and many threats from President Trump while he was still in office—but the bill, announced on Friday by Senators Mark Warner, Mazie Hirono, and Amy Klobuchar, appears to be the most significant step yet toward genuinely reforming it...The problem of online abuse and misinformation became impossible to ignore over the last year, with harmful online conspiracy theories fueling the pandemic, and political lies threatening the election. That culminated in January, when the violent assault on the US Capitolwas fanned by online groups and by Trump himself...The proposals are a “recipe for a bit of a mess” agrees Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of international law at Harvard Law School. He suggests that it may be more important to come up with common standards “to establish what is or isn’t actionable” to make sure that frivolous cases from ill-intentioned complainants do not get turned into vast, expensive lawsuits.

  • Gaining power, losing control

    January 29, 2021

    As we grapple with disinformation driving the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol and hundreds of thousands of deaths from a pandemic whose nature and mitigation is subject to heated dispute, social media companies are weighing how to respond to both the political and public health disinformation, or intentionally false information, that they can spread. These decisions haven’t taken place in a vacuum, says Jonathan Zittrain ’95, Harvard’s George Bemis Professor of International Law and Professor of Computer Science. Rather, he says, they’re part of a years-long trend from viewing digital governance first through a “Rights” framework, then through a “Public Health” framework, and, with them irreconcilable, most immediately through a “Legitimacy” framework. Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, delivered his remarks as part of the first of two editions of the 2020 Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Clare Hall, Cambridge, a prestigious lecture series that advances and reflects upon how scholarly and scientific learning relates to human values. According to Zittrain, former President Donald Trump’s deplatforming from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, among others, is one of the most notable recent content moderation policy decisions — one which Facebook just referred for binding assessment by its new external content Oversight Board.

  • Jonathan Zittrain delivers the 2020 Tanner Lecture

    Gaining power, losing control

    January 28, 2021

    As the 2020 Tanner Lecturer on Human Values at Clare Hall, Cambridge, Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain explores the clash of free speech and public health online.

  • Impeachment Defends the Constitution and Bill of Rights

    January 14, 2021

    An op-ed by Jonathan ZittrainThe majority staff of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives has issued a report to accompany the resolution for today’s second impeachment of President Donald Trump for incitement of insurrection. Earlier this week, my former colleague Alan Dershowitz argued in Newsweek that First Amendment protections against a criminal conviction for incitement to riot make impeachment over the president’s role in last week’s events at the Capitol unconstitutional. I want to explain why this claim carries no weight. Dershowitz wrote that Trump’s speech last week, “disturbing as it may have been—is within the core protection of political speech.” He pointed to Brandenburg v. Ohio, where the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot prohibit speech unless it is specifically “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and “is likely to incite or produce such action.” (In Brandenburg, the Court found that a short speech by a Ku Klux Klan leader at an Ohio farm saying that there might have to be “some revengeance taken” and referencing a march to take place later in Washington, D.C. was protected by the First Amendment from a state charge of “criminal syndicalism” because any lawless action incited was not imminent.) There are a number of ways that the president’s speech, in which he told his supporters that “if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore” and to march to Congress at that very moment in the hopes of disrupting the Electoral Vote count, differs from the facts of Brandenburg. But more importantly, the question at the moment isn’t whether the president could be charged with incitement to violence in criminal court. It’s whether the president can be impeached for his actions, both arising from the speech and from his actions (and inactions) as the crowd stormed the Capitol and he was implored to help.

  • The Lawfare Podcast: Jonathan Zittrain on the Great Deplatforming

    January 14, 2021

    Yesterday, January 13, the House of Representatives impeached President Trump a second time for encouraging the violent riot in the Capitol Building on January 6. And yet, the impeachment is probably less of a crushing blow to the president than something else that’s happened in recent days: the loss of his Twitter account. After a few very eventful weeks, Lawfare's Arbiters of Truth series on disinformation is back. Evelyn Douek and Quinta Jurecic spoke with Jonathan Zittrain, the George Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School, about the decision by Twitter, Facebook and a whole host of other platforms to ban the president in the wake of the Capitol riot. Jonathan, Evelyn and Quinta take a step back and situate what’s happening within the broader story of internet governance. They talked about how to understand the bans in the context of the internet’s now not-so-brief history, how platforms make these decisions and, of course, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Listeners might also be interested in Zittrain's February 2020 Tanner Lecture, "Between Suffocation and Abdication: Three Eras of Governing Digital Platforms," which touches on some of the same ideas discussed in the podcast.

  • Molly Brady wearing a bright red jacket sits in front of a computer and teaches her class in Zoom

    2020 in pictures

    January 5, 2021

    A look back at the year at HLS.

  • On the Bookshelf: HLS Library Book Talks, Spring 2018 2

    On the bookshelf

    December 15, 2020

    In the unusual year of 2020, Harvard Law authors continued to do what they always have: Write.

  • Imagine a world in which AI is in your home, at work, everywhere

    December 7, 2020

    Imagine a robot trained to think, respond, and behave using you as a model. Now imagine it assuming one of your roles in life, at home or perhaps at work. Would you trust it to do the right thing in a morally fraught situation? That’s a question worth pondering as artificial intelligence increasingly becomes part of our everyday lives, from helping us navigate city streets to selecting a movie or song we might enjoy — services that have gotten more use in this era of social distancing. It’s playing an even larger cultural role with its use in systems for elections, policing, and health care...Jonathan Zittrain, Berkman Klein Center director and Harvard Law School’s George Bemis Professor of International Law, said it’s important that we think hard about whether and where AI’s adoption might be a good thing and, if so, how best to proceed. Zittrain said that AI’s spread is different from prior waves of technology because AI shifts the decision-making away from humans and toward machines and their programmers. And, where technologies like the internet were developed largely in the open by government and academia, the frontiers of AI are being pushed forward largely by private corporations, which shield the business secrets of how their technologies operate. The effort to understand AI’s place in society and its impact on all of our lives — not to mention whether and how it should be regulated — will take input from all areas of society, Zittrain said. “It’s almost a social-cultural question, and we have to recognize that, with the issues involved, it’s everybody’s responsibility to think it through,” Zittrain said.

  • Connected Parent Zoom panel

    ‘The Connected Parent’ offers guidance, insight into digital parenting

    November 16, 2020

    “The Connected Parent,” a new book by John Palfrey ’01 and Urs Gasser LL.M. ’03  is a practical guide for addressing concerns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and navigating an increasingly digital world.

  • voting box with a lock

    Simulating responses to election disinformation

    October 14, 2020

    In an effort to combat multiple potential vectors of attack on the 2020 U.S. election, two Berkman Klein Center affiliates have published a package of “tabletop exercises,” freely available to decisionmakers and the public to simulate realistic scenarios in which disinformation threatens to disrupt the 2020 election.

  • Icon of a lock indicating digital security

    ‘We need to be more imaginative about cybersecurity than we are right now’

    October 7, 2020

    In the “good old days” of cybersecurity risk, we only had to worry about being hacked or downloading malware. But the stakes have ramped up considerably in the past decade, say Berkman Klein directors James Mickens and Jonathan Zittrain.

  • An unbalanced scale weighing COVID against a dollar sign, house, medical symbol, pyramid, and a man teaching

    The law is ‘tested and illuminated during this pandemic’

    September 16, 2020

    In the first colloquium of a sweeping new series, “COVID-19 and the Law,” five Harvard Law faculty members grappled with the challenges, limitations, and opportunities of governmental powers during a public health crisis.