Lessons from Harvard’s Kennedy School on Technology and Governance 2.0

Unlike political campaigns in this year’s US election cycle, it was refreshing to observe for a change, personal and institutional vulnerability being treated openly and respectfully in a political context.

The context was an event I attended last week titled “Technology & Governance 2.0” sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 22-23 September, 2010.

The vulnerability was the acknowledgment by some faculty members at the Kennedy School of Government – including endearingly candid remarks from Professor Venkatesh (Venky) Narayanamurti about Twitter– that they personally have not embraced the use of technology and social networking tools and more consequentially, have not fully integrated technology and society policies into their curriculum to prepare future leaders for democratic societies.

The goal of the conference was to bring together government policy makers, academics and industry to address current and emerging technology issues and advance ideas for their impact on government policy and education. Tim Berners-Lee was invited to give the luncheon keynote address at this event. I attended in my role as development officer and liaison for the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) eGovernment activities in Open Linked Data.

Many conference participants were in the “over forty” demographic, although a few Kennedy School students and recent graduates attended. Only a handful in the audience opened laptops or mobile devices to actively Tweet feeds being shown on screen; but the conference’s academic setting and culture created a safe environment for the free expression of ideas, insights and insecurities.

In her summary remarks at the close of the conference, Dorothy Zinberg, Lecturer in Public Policy and Senior Research Associate at the Belfer Center, drew an analogy based on her hearing an elegant lecture given a number of years ago by the Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. She explained how he began his story with a mother and child waiting to be seen in a clinic, and proceeded to unfold the complexities of a national health care systems and its theoretical underpinnings going back to the writings of Marx and Weber. At each level of increasing complexity, different groups could follow his thinking.

Likewise, Zinberg commented that while some speakers’ explanations of the technical underpinnings of the Internet and the Web sometimes went over her head, she appreciated how a number of speakers brought the essence of complex issues – such as net neutrality, IPv4 and IPv6, privacy, wireless spectrum, health IT and electronic medical records— into clear and relevant focus for policy makers and academics.”

Those who impressed me in the category of both tech and policy-savvy were: Kennedy School of Government alumni Aneesh Chopra, US CTO and Ian Freed, VP Amazon Digital Services for Kindle; academics such as Assistant Professor Ben Edelman, Harvard Business School; Professor of Law and Computer Science Jonthan Zittrain, Co-Founder and Faculty Co-Director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society; Professor Susan Crawford, Cardozo Law School, former ICANN board member and founder of OneWeb Day; Yochai Benkler, Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies and Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society; and beltway insiders Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center; and Michael Klein, Chairman and CEO Sunlight Foundation.

Among the technologically gifted luminati, Berners-Lee; Mitch Kapor, Founder of Lotus Develoment Corporation and Akamai Technologies CEO Paul Sagan ventured boldly into policy framework discussions. Kapor reminded the audience that the Internet is an important architecture, with his renowned attribution, “Architecture is politics.”

One substantive issue that sparked passionate language from Professor Crawford was the push by the United Nations International Telecommunications Unit (UN ITU), backed by countries such as China, to have control over IPv6 allocation. The current system enables individuals to obtain IP addresses through a private Internet Service Provider (ISP) that is not connected to a particular border or country. The UN model would allocate IP numbers tied to specific country borders.

“If the UN is in charge,” Crawford said, “NGOs and private citizens would not have a seat at that table. It would be the rebuilding of borders in cyberspace…with gatekeepers in the physical layer of the Internet.”

Akamai’s Sagan stated that an interdisciplinary approach is needed. “It’s a market, not just a policy. We have personal experience with ITU. We do not want the UN regulating the Internet.”

The discussion expanded to address other bottleneck or gate-keeping issues such as net neutrality. Crawford asserted that “the public is completely unaware and policy makers [in Washington, DC] have been over-run by telco operators and cable operators. We need ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ for net neutrality.”

In his keynote remarks, Berners-Lee took the importance of net neutrality a step further, saying it should be an amendment to the US Constitution.

Other discussions addressed the perceived commercial monopolization of broadband cable; the impact of wireless platforms and proprietary devices; and concern that anti-trust laws are being circumvented by dominant search engines, content providers and advertisers to control what information you see first or at all on the Web.

Another topic drawing substantial discussion was Privacy, which everyone agreed was an area in need of more focused research and solutions.

(Note that the W3C will host two Workshops on Privacy at MIT in Cambridge, MA: Privacy and Data Usage Control 4-5 October in Cambridge, MA; and Internet Privacy 8-9 December.)

While the Kennedy School’s “Technology & Governance 2.0” event addressed a wide range of technology and policy issues, one theme of high relevance for W3C was strong: there is a high need for global standards and for continued collaboration among global players. W3C’s work in eGovernment is moving from Interest Group level to the chartering of a new Working Group in which government agencies, academics and industry will develop best practices for publishing and consuming open linked data on the Web.

As US CTO Chopra said, “@ConnectorKaren: Aneesh: Notion of open, standards processes is key; can unlock incredible amounts of value.Yes! #stppICTconf” And that’s a Tweet!