“In this area, as in so many that concern generative technologies and dynamic markets, the line between ‘too early to tell’ and ‘too late to do anything about it’ is vanishingly thin.”
– Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law and Professor of Computer Science at Harvard and a Leading Expert on the Governance of Future Technology, Including Artificial Intelligence and Cybersecurity
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It is not unusual for regulators to clash with tech companies when trying to establish policies for protecting citizens as well as the rights of the company. Potential and known harms have been emerging from the use of technology such as invasion of privacy, data breaches, and abuses on social media platforms – and the problems continue to escalate.
Helping leaders understand the technological and legal implications of such issues is Harvard Law and Computer Science Professor Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society (BKC).
In recent hearings on Big Tech, Congress wrestled with how and when to regulate private tech companies’ automated products like Alexa in our homes. In a June 15, 2021 testimony to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, policy makers called on Zittrain to provide guidance on the interlocking privacy, surveillance, and free market issues. He outlined a set of strategies to frame the challenge as an opportunity to drive growth, but with some risk.“Just as many of us idiosyncratically possess phone numbers with area codes frozen from wherever we were in 2006, a decision about what mobile platform on which to start a teenager – perhaps simply mirroring that of their parents – can have years-long implications,” explained Zittrain. “A Congress concerned with civil liberties should be laying down consistent, transparent and appropriately restrictive rules of the road now, before habits of surveillance for home technologies are established and then deemed indispensable, even as today they are barely in use.”
Zittrain’s work spans privacy, competition, governance, and security – and goes beyond the written word. He and his team at BKC just launched a three-year multidisciplinary institute dedicated to “rebooting social media,” and this fall he will be introducing a related course at Harvard appropriately titled “Design for Democratic Discourse.”
HOW ONLINE “LINK ROT” THREATENS FUTURE ACCESS TO INFORMATION
Zittrain’s latest research poses a new question about how long-term information survives – or doesn’t – on the Internet. In a recent article in The Atlantic, “The Internet is Rotting” , Zittrain sheds light on the growing problem of content drift or “link rot” happening online and how it threatens access to important information that used to be available but is no longer clickable.
“We found that 50 percent of the links embedded in Court opinions since 1996, when the first hyperlink was used, no longer worked. And 75 percent of the links in the Harvard Law Review no longer worked. People tend to overlook the decay of the modern web when in fact these numbers are extraordinary,” Zittrain explains in the article. “They represent a comprehensive breakdown in the chain of custody for facts.”
Author of “The Future of Internet and How to Stop It”, and named a Top 100 Global Thinker, Zittrain has been leading conversations around online free speech, cyberlaw, the ethics of data use, digital assets, and surveillance technologies for over three decades. As an advisor, speaker and educator, he teaches organizations how they can be part of the solution actively supporting policies and developing products that protect organizational and individual privacy. He also advises policy makers on regulatory laws aimed at protecting consumer privacy and properly governing digital platforms.
Always focused on the big picture, Zittrain points tech companies toward policies that will allow their companies to succeed well into the future while genuinely serving and protecting their most valuable asset: citizens’ trust.
For regular updates and insights from Jonathan Zittrain, follow him on Twitter.