On August 9, Google and Verizon announced an alliance in which Google, the champion of the free, open Internet, would partially bow to Verizon’s long-held position that purveyors of certain types of content should pay to get priority when using Verizon’s Internet network. Seeking savvy commentary on a high-stakes public-policy story that had Washington and Silicon Valley abuzz, Newsweek published a quick Q&A on its website with Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain.
For Newsweek, Zittrain was an obvious choice: the co-founder and co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, he has become a go-to source for any technology reporter. He is also a kind of academic messiah of “network neutrality,” the philosophy that holds that all Internet content should be treated equally in terms of access. This has always been Google’s mantra, too: “Google’s business interests align nicely with openness,” Zittrain assured The Washington Post’s readers in a May 2008 Q&A.
So those who have followed Zittrain’s work might reasonably have assumed he would have howled from the rooftops that Google had struck a deal with the closed-network devil. But when Newsweek asked him, “Has Google sold out? Are they no longer the ‘Don’t be evil’ company?” the Harvard law professor held his fire:
I wouldn’t expect Google to do much more than represent its own interests—which may overlap with that of the average Internet user, but not always. So I’d take both Google and Verizon at their word that they offer the framework as a suggestion, and then it’s up to the public—and its elected representatives—to decide what to do with the proposal.
Zittrain’s diplomatic approach was worlds apart from the reaction of his fellow open-web warriors, who unloaded on Google and the deal. For example, Gigi B. Sohn, the president of Public Knowledge, whose stated mission is to “defend citizens’ rights in the emerging digital culture,” told The New York Times on August 10: “We’ve seen what happens when powerful corporations are allowed to operate without clear and enforceable rules, the financial crisis and the BP oil spill being two examples.”
In media and policy circles, Zittrain’s reaction was an important bullet for Google to have dodged. How bad could Google’s alliance with Verizon be if Jonathan Zittrain wasn’t upset about it? But what readers weren’t told is that Google has been the Berkman Center’s biggest corporate donor in recent years. The center’s co-directors, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, told me in an e-mail in June that Google contributed roughly $500,000 over the last two years, part of the 10 percent of Berkman’s overall operating budget of approximately $5 million that comes from corporate donors. Berkman lists Google as a contributor on its website, but does not specify its prominence. (Disclosure: In January, I was turned down for a part-time freelance research/writing job at Berkman.)
The only information that Newsweek provided readers about Zittrain was that he is a Harvard law professor and co-director of the Berkman Center. Dan Lyons, Newsweek’s technology editor who interviewed Zittrain, declined to comment about whether he had asked Zittrain about any potential conflicts or if Zittrain had disclosed any. Kathleen Deveny, who was Lyons’s editor on the piece, said Newsweek did not ask Zittrain about potential conflicts.
None of this is to suggest that, because Google gives Berkman a significant amount of money, Zittrain simply does Google’s bidding when he weighs in on the various policy debates that swirl around major technology companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and AT&T. But the Berkman-Google example suggests a new frontier in the press’s role in alerting the public to potential conflicts of interest with the sources they rely on for expertise.
The press, broadly speaking, has a checkered history when it comes to fulfilling this role. Its most prominent failure in this regard is probably the disclosure of ties between health-care professionals and the big drug manufacturers who fund their research and their conferences. The problem is so widespread that there is now a website, HealthNewsReview.org, devoted in part to identifying and correcting conflict-of-interest and similar problems with the coverage of health care issues.