Faculty Q&A: Untangling the Web
Since its inception, Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society has helped foster innovation on the Web, especially as the Internet has evolved into a more interactive medium. Executive Director John G. Palfrey Jr. ’01 talked to HLT about the center’s role in developing “Web 2.0.”
How did the Berkman Center help develop blogs and podcasts?
It began with Dave Winer, who started as a fellow in 2002-2003. He was an early leader of the blogging movement. We set up the first universitywide blogging server with his help, and within a remarkably short period of time, 500 people across the university—students, faculty, staff, fellows and alumni—began blogging on the server and created a series of communities around ideas in cyberspace. One of the great things about the Berkman Center is how we function in some ways as a laboratory for the fellows who come through. Great things come from their collaboration.
What’s RSS and how did the Berkman Center get involved?
RSS is the acronym for really simple syndication. It’s an extremely easy-to-use standard for syndicating and aggregating content. The basic idea is that you create a digital work in one place and you can publish it to any other part of the Web extremely simply. Readers can very easily subscribe to as many sources of info as they’d like. This is a huge innovation. It democratizes the process of publishing even further. Many of us here realized that RSS would be an important piece of infrastructure of Web 2.0. There was a dispute about the standard, and we stepped in as lawyers. The concern was about intellectual property and who owns the standard. We realized this was something that shouldn’t be owned by any individual or company. It should be held in trust for the public. Dave Winer gave the standard to Harvard to hold in trust, and then we in turn gave it back to the world through a Creative Commons license on a nonexclusive basis. Anyone can use it without fear of intellectual property constraints. This was a very easy, informal way of ensuring no one would be sued for adopting the RSS standard. Across the Web you see RSS 2.0 adopted as the standard, and that would not have been possible without taking the fear of litigation out of it.
What is the Global Voices project?
Global Voices is a cool project that emerged from a conference we had on the Internet’s effect on politics, attended by bloggers and political theorists. They came up with the idea that we need an alternative Associated Press for parts of the world that are not covered by the mainstream media but are covered by people on the ground. Global Voices has emerged into a powerhouse in the global media space. It is a community on the one hand, but also an aggregator of the most interesting authentic voices around the world, and it puts those voices in context. There are hundreds of volunteers in countries around the world, and there is a small core of regional editors in different regions who are constantly reading what people on the ground are saying, writing up the most interesting stories and putting them in context. When the monks began protesting in Burma, or Myanmar, last fall and the government responded by shutting down the Internet, it was through Global Voices that many people around the world came to know what was happening there. We were deluged with calls from the mainstream press interested in getting firsthand accounts.
What’s percolating now at Berkman?
We’re working on the Digital Natives project, which is studying how young people use technologies to be more creative. One of the roadblocks to more people using Web 2.0 tools is a misunderstanding of the copyright law. We’re seeking to understand the motivations of young people doing creative things online and to develop ways to teach copyright to kids to encourage creativity. That’s a way to apply our understanding of intellectual property to promote trends in how young people are learning and expressing themselves.