Does Harvard really hate Steve Jobs?July 6, 2010: 7:00 AM ET
An online journal puts a star professor under a most unusual microscope
This is what passes for investigative journalism at The Daily Beast, the news and opinion website founded in 2008 by former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown: a 1,900 word story attacking the credibility of one of the Internet's leading intellectuals written by a publishing heiress whose longest previous work was a year-long blog called "Confessions of a 5th Avenue Misfit."
The subject of the piece, Harvard vs. Steve Jobs, is Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet Law at Harvard Law School and faculty co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He's an influential expert who has written extensively on censorship, intellectual property law and filtering for content and computer security. He's the author, most recently, of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It and co-editor of Access Denied. He helped found StopBadware, a free service that scans the Web for malware.
The author is Emily Brill, daughter of Steven Brill, who founded American Lawyer, Court TV and Journalism Online. Emily Brill, whose CV includes jobs at MSNBC's Morning Joe and Journalism Online, is best-known through gossip items in Gawker, which regularly mined her blog and Facebook page for bikini photos of her newly thin body and details of her life of privilege -- a yacht trip to St. Barts, an intimate meal with George Clooney, the Manhattan event circuit.
What bothers Brill about Zittrain, ironically, is how well-connected he is. And what set her off is a quote that appeared in an op-ed piece he wrote for the Financial Times last February:
"iPhone thus remains tightly tethered to its vendor — the way that the Kindle is controlled by Amazon … Mr. Jobs ushered in the personal computer era and now he is trying to usher it out."
Her contention is that Harvard's Berkman Center -- and by extension, Zittrain -- is biased against Apple (AAPL), which does not give it money, and in favor of its sponsors, Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT), which do. Does she have the goods? She does not.
Brill became aware of Zittrain when she was invited to audit his Stanford cyberlaw seminar in the course of applying for a job at the Berkman Center -- a job she discloses (to her credit) that she did not get. The fact that the three-week seminar was funded by Microsoft, and that the students were not told of this, got her curious about who pays for Internet research. She set off on a mission to find out.
She comes up with some numbers: Google gave Berkman $500,000 over the past two years; Microsoft between $100,000 and $150,000 for 2010. The "lavish catering" for the seminar lunch she ate (mista salad, sage aioli, cranberry chutney etc.) came to $4,647.56.
And the seminar, she reluctantly admits, was "thoroughly enjoyable." Zittrain was like a "rock star" to his students -- "approachable and passionate about his work, without being pretentious." In fact, everything he has written about Apple and Steve Jobs seems consistent with his views on the Internet -- that it should remain free and open and resist all efforts to lock it down.
In the end she -- or her editors -- is forced to write the dreaded "appearance of conflict" paragraph:
"No one has alleged that anyone at Harvard Law School has formulated opinions because he or she was paid to. But Berkman and Zittrain, due in no small part to the force of Harvard's branding, have become increasingly important players in Internet policy and media circles. The appearance of conflicts matter; even if such conflicts are not the stuff of life and death, as they might be in medical research, they do impact legislation, stock prices, and consumer choices."
Zittrain's one mistake seems to have been to blow off several scheduled meetings with Brill and to stop answering her e-mails. If only he had followed the lead of George Clooney and had that intimate lunch with Emily Brill, none of this might have happened.
[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]