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HLS Professors Push for Data-Use in Internet Policy

By Cynthia W. Shih, Contributing Writer

Harvard Law School professors John G. Palfrey ’94 and Jonathan L. Zittrain ’95 challenged policy-makers last week to use more independently-collected data in formulating internet regulations and policy.

Palfrey and Zittrain published a paper in Science magazine titled “Better Data for a Better Internet,” which examines how internet policy can be better informed by improved data and research methods.

While huge quantities of data about personal internet usage has been collected by corporations, independently-collected information rarely makes it into the hands of policy-makers, according to Palfrey and Zittrain, who are faculty co-directors of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

“Policy-making is based, too often, on anecdotes collected at random (or worse, self-servingly) or on research produced or funded in ways that call into doubt its scholarly integrity,” they wrote in their paper.

According to Palfrey, he and Zittrain fear that the Internet is being increasingly regulated by both state and private actors.

In their paper, they cited President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to shut off internet and mobile phone service in Egypt following a series of uprisings as an example of how government regulation of the internet can have “profound societal impact.”

Palfrey said he believes that current internet policy is too often uninformed, while Zittrain said that people often look to simply confirm their ideological assumptions.

“There’s no getting ideology out of policy-making, but it would help to have a sense of what’s really going on out there—and what a proposed policy or action will likely do, both directly and in its side effects. Data helps,” Zittrain wrote in an email.

Palfrey said that he believes the public at large should be concerned with internet regulation.

“Nearly every aspect of life today in a wired society involves the Internet and digital media one way or another,” Palfrey wrote in an email. “The way in which the space is regulated matters to all of us.”

Thomas C. Rubin, chief counsel for Intellectual Property Strategy at Microsoft, agreed with Palfrey and Zittrain that it is in the broad interests of society to ensure that the most relevant data does not go unmined.

“The Internet is among the most significant and democratic innovations in all of history,” said Rubin. “As far as policymaking is concerned, data is an unalloyed good.”

Palfrey said that he and Zittrain would like to see a very different approach to data collection about online censorship, human behavior in digitally-mediated environments, and the network itself to better model how regulations will affect speed and price.

“With better data, we believe that we can have a better Internet,” Palfrey wrote. “We think the environment can be better for civic activism, for learning, and for innovation.”

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