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Harvard Tech Guru Responds to Conflict-of-Interest Accusations

Scholars at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society are constantly quoted in news stories about technology. This week the center itself is the story, after a controversial report in the online publication The Daily Beast questioned its financial ties to leading tech companies. And the center’s co-founder has responded.

The chief target of the article, “Harvard vs. Steve Jobs,” was Jonathan Zittrain (pictured at left), a law professor, Berkman Center co-founder, and former guest contributor to this blog. Describing Mr. Zittrain as “an influential critic of Apple,” author Emily Brill alleged that the Internet scholar and his research center were insufficiently transparent about financial and personal ties to Apple’s competitors. Ms. Brill’s background added an unusual twist: She acknowledges having been rejected for a job at Berkman.

Ms. Brill’s takedown of a net guru—Webheads affectionately call Mr. Zittrain “JZ”—sent some of the geek elite into a tizzy. At Fortune, Philip Elmer-DeWitt dismissed Ms. Brill as a “publishing heiress whose longest previous work was a yearlong blog called ‘Confessions of a 5th Avenue Misfit.’” Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, fired off a tweet asking “Is Emily Brill of @thedailybeast the dumbest young reporter in America or just the sleaziest?” Michael Zimmer, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, wrote a blog post defending Mr. Zittrain. Larry D. Kramer, the dean of Stanford Law School, described part of the piece as “highly misleading.”

One thing that’s been missing from all this noise is Mr. Zittrain himself. In an e-mail to Wired Campus, the professor said he was “floored” by the “flat-out hit piece.” Mr. Zittrain argued that the Berkman Center “has full disclosure of its gifts and policies,” pointing to a Web page that lists the center’s corporate backers. He also rejected Ms. Brill’s argument that his work is anti-Apple.

“It’s not,” Mr. Zittrain said. “I’ve used the iPhone—and the Kindle, and the Google Books project—as examples of a move to non-generative systems,” meaning systems that aren’t conducive to user innovation, “even as I also praise each. (I own both an iPhone and a Kindle!)”  He added, “Each of these, and the other platforms like them, could be made more generative in ways that I discuss at length in my scholarship, without my worry or the solutions striking at the core identity of one company or another.”

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