On the Daily Beast, Emily Brill reports that Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain, founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, is a consistent critic of Apple—without disclosing that his center is funded by Apple’s rivals.

For example, a week after the iPad announcement last January, The Financial Times published an op-ed by Berkman Center founder and star professor Jonathan Zittrain critical of Apple, declaring: “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.”

What most readers don’t know is that the Berkman Center and many of its leading professors have financial and personal ties to Google and other tech companies—ties that are not disclosed when these academics speak or publish, and that I discovered after auditing a class with Zittrain….

This is a fascinating story. Brill audited a seminar that Zittrain gave at the Stanford Law School (she admits that she hoped to get a summer job at the Berkman Center, but did not).

What first struck me as odd about the course was its lavish catering. On January 4 the menu offered, among other choices, Mista Salad: Simple and Delicious Mixed Field Greens with Cucumbers and Ripe Tomatoes in a Light Vinaigrette, and Harvest Roasted Turkey with Oven Roasted Turkey Panini, Sage Aioli, Cranberry Chutney, and Munster Cheese.

When can a professor afford to offer his students such luscious fare?

When his class is funded by Microsoft, that’s when. But the students were never informed of that fact; Brill found out by asking the law school dean.

Brill reports that Zittrain is tight with powerful people in the Internet world, including Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google and a Berkman Center funder. He has also written in praise of Microsoft, another Berkman Center funder.

The Berkman Center seems anxious indeed about Brill’s report.

AT&T, currently the exclusive carrier of Apple’s iPhone (the product Zittrain loves to hate), has participated in just one Berkman project—an Internet Safety Technical Task Force that took place in 2008 and included 20 other companies and organizations. AT&T contributed $10,000.

On June 3, as I was reporting this piece, asking about the nature of Berkman’s funding, AT&T suddenly appeared on the Berkman Center’s website list of “current sponsors.” After I inquired about the change, on June 7 AT&T returned to the website’s “past supporter” list, but the center would not comment on why. AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said he has no idea why Berkman would list (or unlist) the company as a “current sponsor.

And Zittrain himself proved less than helpful—strange behavior for an advocate of Internet transparency.

In repeated email and voice mail exchanges, Zittrain declined requests to answer questions about his personal corporate backing or speaking engagements. (Zittrain is listed on the Washington Speaker’s Bureau website, which quotes his speaking fee as between $15,000 and $25,000; he is also listed on the Monitor Talent Speaker’s Bureau website as available for consulting or keynote addresses. Both companies declined to comment.) He said he was feeling ill the week in June that we had scheduled for a phone interview, canceling it. I then asked Zittrain over email if he had a personal disclosure statement or policy. He answered that he could not “engage on this,” citing major surgery he had in May. After I learned he was back on the speaking circuit, I made several attempts to follow up by email and by phone. He continued to decline comment, citing his health and other “long-arranged” commitments.

To be fair, Brill did not note, but should have, that Zittrain has been ill at least as recently as last spring.

Zittrain has a blog, but he has not used it to respond to Brill’s article; the blog’s last post is dated June 28, and it’s written by people named Jennifer Halbleib, who appears to be a Stanford law student, and Elisabeth Oppenheimer, ditto.  The last post authored by Zittrain is on June 3rd.

Zittrain also has a Twitter feed, but hasn’t written anything about the issue on that either.

Interestingly, he does promote genetic testing, which is a personal and business obsession of—wait for it—Sergey Brin. He even hyperlinks to 23andme, Brin’s DNA testing company.

Brill details the extent of Zittrain’s influence in the Internet policy and thinktank world and the great appeal he has among his students. She then writes,

No one has alleged that anyone at Harvard Law School has formulated opinions because he or she was paid to.

I wish Brill hadn’t shied away from the logical conclusion of this significant piece of journalism, because in fact, that’s exactly what her reporting suggests—that the Berkman Center is bought and paid for, that it is intellectually compromised by its corporate funding (which it doesn’t disclose to the public or its students), and that the people associated with the Center are using the Harvard brand to pimp themselves out to Internet giants and fashion a pretty cozy (in lots of ways) life for themselves.

It would be fascinating to consider if Zittrain’s attitudes towards Microsoft have changed and if there’s any apparent correlation between the evolution of his thinking and Microsoft’s funding of the Berkman Center, his course, et al.

Brill does point out that Harvard, inspired by the fiasco at the medical school, is working on a stronger conflict-of-interest policy, and that Harvard’s Laurence Lessig has been a forceful advocate of vigorous disclosure.

Nonetheless, this article raises serious questions about the credibility of the Berkman Center and the people associated with it.


In a sleazy piece of blogging, Fortune’s Philip Elmer-Dewitt attacks Brill personally, writing,

This is what passes for investigative journalism at The Daily Beast, the news and opinion website founded in 2008 by formerVanity 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

Elmer-Dewitt owes Brill an apology.