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Harvard, Stanford Students To Examine Internet in Course

By Caroline M. McKay, Crimson Staff Writer

Students at Harvard and Stanford are working to explore the future of the internet as part of a six-week course.

The course—which connects two classrooms at Harvard and Stanford via video communication—is part of an effort between Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

The class, called “Ideas for a Better Internet,” is comprised of approximately equal shares of law school students and undergraduates concentrating in computer science.

It is a part of a larger program that is currently being developed, which aims to address perceived problems with the internet, including user privacy issues and issues of government interference.

Harvard Law School Professor Jonathan L. Zittrain is coordinating the class at Harvard, and Yale University Computer Science Lecturer Elizabeth Stark is coordinating the course at Stanford.

“I think we’re trying to push the envelope with East Coast, West Coast collaboration—using technology to collaborate, especially [considering] the class embraces technology,” Stark said.

The course is the product of a partnership between the two centers, which Zittrain helped foster after he worked as a visiting professor at Stanford Law, according to Stark. As part of the partnership, Harvard students have flown to Stanford for the last two winter breaks to collaborate with Stanford students in a short course, which required them to deliberate on problems with the internet and propose solutions.

Stark said that the winter course asked a lot of students in a short period of time, hence the incentive to extend the program to an entire year.

“The [spring] course is part of what may become a regular year-long process to identify and refine ideas for a better Internet,” Zittrain said.

Instead of asking students to fix problems they see with the internet, the spring course will require students to solicit ideas from users on the internet for ideas.

Stark said that she thought the ideas that students have brainstormed will probably be similar to ideas that will be submitted on the internet. She said that, according to their applications, the students are especially interested in improving internet access and privacy. In light of governments in Libya and Egypt shutting down the internet in attempts to stem public uprisings, Stark said that students were interested in researching the possibility of creating sources for network access that could not be shut down by oppressive governments.

Students are also interested in protecting internet users’ private information and giving users more information about how their information is distributed, she said.

Stark called the spring course a “work in progress,” and added that once her and Zittrain have further developed the program, she would like to inspire other universities to develop similar programs.

“I’d love to see more academic programs involve students working on real problems,” Stark said.

—Staff writer Caroline M. McKay can be reached at

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