Get Naked with John Palfrey

In our last Get Naked post, we interviewed PR guru Larry Weber and talked about his new book, "Marketing to the Social Web." Larry is one of the most social people we know, so when he introduced us to John Palfrey from the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School, we knew we had another great Get Naked story on our hands.

The first paragraph of John’s bio says: as Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, John’s work focuses on Internet law, intellectual property, and the potential of new technologies to strengthen democracies locally and around the world. John is a Visiting Professor of Information Law and Policy at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland for the 2007-2008 academic year.

I’ll admit that reading this made me think of that Cracker song, Teen Angst"¦does the world really need another academic bringing white space ideas down from the mountaintop (literally)? Well, the short answer is "Yes," and you’ll quickly recognize that John is the real deal. He is one of those unique people that pushes the envelope on far-reaching, abstract topics like cyberlaw and the impact of the web on society, but keeps the conversation grounded so everyone can participate.

My favorite example of this is his keynote address at the IS2K7 conference earlier this year. You’ll see why Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree calls him "one of the most dangerous guys around."

I counted sixty team members on the Berkman Center website — not including emeritus members John Perry Barlow and Zephyr Teachout — what does everyone do?

The Berkman Center is an extremely fun, vibrant, eclectic place. I hope you guys will come by to visit some day — we’re not far from Compete’s world HQ.

Other than having you come over to see for yourself, the easiest way to answer the question is by describing a regular Tuesday at the Berkman Center. In the morning, you might see lawyers like Phil Malone, Dena Sacco, Renee Lloyd and others in conversation with HLS students about on cutting-edge legal matters. There are about 100 or so students who are involved in the Berkman Center’s work each year, roughly 30 of whom are taking part in our cyberlaw clinic.

Around lunchtime, we welcome about 30 people for a sandwich and a conversation about the latest issue in their work, whether it’s for-profit or non-profit, high-tech or low-tech. The lunch crowd includes students, people from the broader community, as well as faculty, staff, and fellows of the Center. Later in the afternoon, we might have someone present on the interesting issues related to their company, like Andrew McLaughlin of Google, Miles Gilburne of AOL fame and now building out ePals, or Chris Kelly of Facebook, each of whom came by recently. Nearer the end of the day, our fellows get together to talk about their work, and are joined by Berkman staff and faculty much of the time. Recent topics include Gene Koo and Shenja van der Graaf’s interests in virtual worlds like Second Life and gaming in education. You might hear the voice of experts on how young people use technology, like danah boyd, piping in from the ceiling (technically speaking, calling in via teleconference). You might hear Ethan Zuckerman talking about issues of interconnection affecting ISPs in Ghana or the changing media environment in Jordan.

The common cause that joins all of us at the Berkman Center is a commitment to teaching and scholarship that is relevant to the changes on the Internet and which has an impact on how we make decisions. Most of us believe in a largely "open" Internet, but we disagree on lots of points, too.

With so many smart people focused on the whitespace of the web, how do you make sure regular Joes understand what you’re up to (and not just perpetual navel-gazing)?

Perpetual navel-gazing is a real hazard. It is also among my worst nightmares.

It’s crucial to us at the Berkman Center that we’re not just another ivory-tower think-tank. It’s important that we do some work that is theoretical and even abstract. We trust also that our work is intellectually rigorous and that our methodologies are sound. But at the same time, we try hard to be certain that we are speaking to an audience online that is bigger than our immediate circle of students and colleagues and other friends.

One way we do that is through our various modes of research, teaching, and activism. We believe in building out into cyberspace as we study it, so we have terrific developers on the team who put up the first blog server at a university, supported the first podcast series, built real-time teaching tools for the classroom, and a whole lot of code for specific research projects. Pretty much everything we do we publish to the web — whether on a blog, on our website, on a podcast, or by video. We are never as successful at this as we’d like to be, but it’s a constant area of focus. We think of our work as relevant to a broad audience and strive to avoid navel-gazing wherever possible.

One project where I think we’re close to getting it right is That’s a neighborhood watch where people can tell us about computer programs and web sites around the Internet that are causing problems to their computers. We work with Google to present you with a warning if you’re about to hit a site that may be dangerous to your computer. We also promise that we’ll take web sites and applications off the list when they become clean. It’s been very effective in terms of keeping millions of people from going to compromised sites and also leading to sites and applications getting cleaned up. As with every ambitious research project, it’s still a work in progress, and we’re totally open to ideas for how we can do it better.

Across the many areas where cyberspace and law intersect, which areas do you feel have the greatest urgency to get right?

I think the most crucial place to get it right at the moment is to balance the terrific benefits of openness online with the need to ensure various forms of digital security. My colleague Jonathan Zittrain has written an amazing book on this topic, which is coming out in a few months, called The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It. JZ’s book is a must-read on this topic. I think this question is also central to the net neutrality debates. Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, which has a chapter near the end on what he calls the institutional battle for the ecology of the network. It’s also near the core of what we’re doing on projects like and the OpenNet Initiative, a partnership with other universities (Toronto, Oxford, and Cambridge) through which we study the censorship and surveillance on the web around the world. We’ve also got a book coming out on this topic, called Access Denied, in January, which shows that more than two dozen states around the world are censoring the Internet. I guess this answer has turned into a reading list, so I’ll go one more — if you care about these issues, I’d also read Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu’s book on Who Controls the Net, which takes a somewhat different perspective.

You gave a great keynote address at IS2K7 back in June where you discussed the role of University as changing from "cathedrals" to "bazaars" of knowledge. How does this differ across schools and borders? Who is the "most bazaar"?

Thanks. I wish there were a "most bazaar" when it comes to schools. No one is getting it totally right yet.

I’d love to see Harvard become much more bazaar (we’ve probably got enough bizarre for now). What I think we ought to see is an environment in which universities can be places where the best scholars do the best work, but also where we can ensure that we’re learning from what others are doing, too. In many ways, this is the key insight from web 2.0: many more people can have more of a voice in ways that contribute to the production of knowledge, with far lower transaction costs involved for everyone. David Weinberger, one of our fellows, has done extremely good work on this topic, and his recent book, Everything is Miscellaneous, belongs on the reading list I started above.

The primary concern I have about this move is that we need to ensure that we don’t just move toward a situation where everyone is talking and no one is listening. That’s a role that universities, and particularly their libraries and those who work in them, can help to play moving forward.

It’s not a university, exactly, but one place this is happening well is at Global Voices Online. GV began as an academic research project, but it’s developed a life of its own and is now spinning out of the Berkman Center. It’s an extraordinary, global community of people who are collectively telling a series of narratives about what’s going on around the world that we’ve never heard before.

What is a Digital Native? Are you one?

Nope, I’m not a Digital Native. A Digital Native, by our definition, is someone who is both born after about 1980 and who uses digital technologies in certain advanced ways. I think I might qualify as a Digital Settler, someone who has used these technologies in extensive ways from the start, but who knew a world before so many things went digital. I think that many, though not all, of our children in developed economies like the United States and Europe are Digital Natives. There’s enough to the idea of a generational gap, though, between Digital Natives and their parents who are at best Digital Immigrants, though, that the trend is worth exploring in depth.

More on the books theme (the book is definitely not dead!), but one that’s not done: I’m writing a book right now about Digital Natives, called Born Digital, along with my good friend and colleague, Prof. Dr. Urs Gasser of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. We’re arguing that there is an emerging population of Digital Natives around the world — who together could form a global culture joined by digital networks and how they use them. While there are things to worry about in terms of how our kids are using these technologies (their privacy, safety, information overload, and so forth), there is much to celebrate and to build upon. The future of many societies around the world depend in part on how we can come to understand this global phenomenon and do something about it.

What happens when billions of new digital natives get $100 web-enabled laptops?

It’s great, great news. The notion behind One Laptop Per Child — of giving a basic, networked machine to the next billion Digital Natives, in parts of the world that are developing rapidly — will be a big kick-start to the next phase of global transformation wrought by new information technologies and how we use them.

The key, though, is not just to put interconnected hardware in the hands of young people, wherever they may be. It’s just as essential that we focus on literacy of various kinds — the training that goes along with learning how to navigate this information environment. That’s not just an issue for developing countries, either. We have major digital divides of the literacy sort right here in the United States and in the wealthiest parts of Europe (I am typing this from a research center high on a hilltop in Switzerland). Check out the work of Eszter Hargittai of Northwestern University and you’ll get the picture.

We’re big fans of Ashton Peery and top10MEDIA (, particularly the celebrity scuttlebutt. How did you come to work together and how do you choose which companies to work with?

I am huge fan of Ashton’s, too. Ashton has been a great CEO of Top Ten Media, a holding company that has spun out Top Ten Sources (now owned by MeeVee), StyleFeeder (now taking the world of online personal shopping by storm), and a third, still-under-wraps effort. I came to know Ashton first as an adviser to the company and then was part of the group that convinced him to become CEO.

Many people who work at Harvard Law School also do some work outside of the university, often related to their legal practice. My preference is to spend this "outside time" working with start-ups. I like to get involved by working with a founding team, their investors, and sometimes as a board member. I learn so much about my work on the Internet and how it affects society through this means.

One of the people I’ve learned the most from in this way is Phil Jacob. I’ve watched Phil from a distance, initially, as a developer in Boston who blogged a lot and who commented online on things like the anti-spam battles. I have watched him work up close more recently in his role as founder and CTO of Phil had the idea for StyleFeeder well before others jumped into the social shopping space. More than two years ago, he had a working beta that he’d developed on his own. Along with a few others, like Ted Henderson from Schooner Capital and Dan Nova from Highland Capital, and an amazing team that totals six people, Phil has developed a juggernaut of a little company. There’s been a lot of talk about how Web 2.0 companies can use less capital than traditional companies and have a big reach. I’m totally convinced that Phil and his team are proving that concept and that the tiny StyleFeeder team is creating something big.

Which presidential candidates do you think have figured out the web?

One of the reasons why I’m a supporter of Senator Obama is because I think he, and his team, truly get the web. There are two manifestations of his "getting it." One sign is the series of policy statements he has made about Internet law and policy, which I think are generally right on. He’s had help from the guru of our space, Lawrence Lessig, as well as great thinkers and do-ers like Beth Noveck and Julius Genachowski. The other sign is how his campaign is using the web. Of course, he’s raised money using online tools and announced his candidacy using online video and so forth. But more fundamentally, he’s using the web as a powerful online social space to connect people in real space. He did a very smart thing by hiring wunderkind Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, as his online organizer. As usual, so much of "getting it" is about hiring the right people to work with you.

What are your favorite facebook applications — are you a Scrabulous addict yet?

I am not a Scrabulous addict, though I have added it. (As an aside: I am surprised that the makers of Scrabble seem to be ceding the Facebook Scrabble space to a few entrepreneurs; I don’t think they get that these social networks may become the next operating systems. I suppose they’ll learn soon enough, but it may be too late to enter that market if they wait too long.)

My favorite application in Facebook is, bar none. But then again, I’m biased and conflicted and so forth. Other than that, I very much like the map applications that let you see where other people have been.

Diet Coke & Mentos or Dramatic Chipmunk?

Definitely Dramatic Chipmunk. I’m not as into the really graphic stuff. Too hard to take.

Last question — who should we get naked with next?

My immediate idea is David Hornik, a venture capitalist at August Capital. He’s wickedly smart and funny. I’d be happy to make an intro if you like.

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