The future of internet access and usage in the United States will be partially determined this summer by a new government committee led by a Harvard professor famed for his advocacy on behalf of Web freedom, openness and transparency.
“I joined the committee because the issues surrounding an open internet — including what that means — are both intellectually complicated and of practical importance,” Zittrain told TPM. “I want the committee to play a sober and honest role in understanding how the internet is evolving, and in working through some of the puzzles as they arise.”
In addition to his roles at Harvard and the new FCC advisory committee, Zittrain also sits on the board of directors of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Web user rights advocacy group. Zittrain and his students also created Chilling Effects, a website that discloses speech-suppressing efforts on the Web around the globe and is used by Google and Twitter.
Aside from Zittrain, the new FCC advisory committee consists of 21 members representing a number of leading internet and telecom companies — AT&T, Comcast, Netflix, Mozilla, among them — as well as activist groups and other university professors. It’s charged with analyzing how well the FCC does at keeping the internet free and open, but also maintaining a fair and competitive marketplace.
That of course is easier said than done, especially considering the fact that several of the members of the committee have openly feuded about what their idea of the future of internet connectivity in the U.S. will look like.
Most recently it was Netflix CEO Reed Hastings who lashed out at cable giant Comcast on his Facebook page, accusing the company in April of violating “net neutrality” principles — the idea that all content on the internet should be treated the same by internet service providers, rather than having some types of content, say video or a specific company’s video, blocked or loaded more slowly.
Specifically, Hastings accused Comcast of using its monthly Internet data cap — an upper limit on how much data a user can transmit through the Internet — to unfairly limit the amount of streaming video that he (and presumably other users) could watch through their Comcast internet provided by websites including Netflix and Hulu. At the same time, Hastings pointed out that Comcast didn’t apply the same limitations to its own streaming offering, Xfinity.
Asked how he would address these and other internal divisions as the leader of the new group, Zittrain declined to specify, saying he had “only begun to immerse” himself in the issues.
“My hope for a summer meeting is to develop an agenda for our work, and to deploy the large and diverse membership — 21 people — in ways that let us take up more than one task at a time,” Zittrain told TPM.
The group’s first action will be to host a public meeting later this summer. No precise date has yet been announced. Stay tuned.