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.

As digital communication becomes more central to our lives and our work, technology companies like Google have more at stake in the public-policy decisions that affect the evolution of communication systems—such as the debate over net neutrality.

The New York Times quoted Zittrain at least twelve times in the last two years on issues related to Google or its rivals. In most cases, only his academic affiliation was provided to readers. (Sometimes he was also identified as author of his 2008 book, The Future of The Internet—And How to Stop It.) “We don’t have specific written policies on what questions you should ask a source before you start interviewing them,” says Philip B. Corbett, the Times’s associate managing editor for standards.

Asked what the difference was between the Berkman-Google connection and a recent Times story on Eli Lilly in which readers were told that the expert quoted—the dean of the medical school at the University of Virginia—“has consulted for Lilly and other companies,” Corbett says: “Medical writers and health writers have become much more aware of this nexus and have gotten used to, almost as a matter of course, when you’re writing about a drug trial, to ask whether there’s a connection and to disclose that.”

In a subsequent interview, Corbett told me he had visited Berkman’s website and, “It looked to me as though they get funding from a lot of sources. I’m not sure that necessarily raises a flag, because they have multiple funding sources…. In a case where an academic is getting directly paid by the company, you’d want to know.”

At The Wall Street Journal, Zittrain has been asked to opine at least nine times in the last two years on issues related to Google and its rivals, with only his academic affiliation provided. (Again, sometimes his 2008 book was cited.) Ashley Huston, Dow Jones’s senior communications director, said via e-mail that, “While there is no formal policy” at the paper about what to disclose when quoting academics or other expert sources, “we do our level best to tease out conflicts and disclose them to readers when we believe it’s warranted.” Nick Wingfield, a technology reporter at the Journal, said in a brief telephone interview that, though he wasn’t sure whether the paper had a policy on this, “As a general rule I ask people if they are consultants or if they worked with somebody that they’re commenting on.”

As for the supply side of the expert-quote equation, Harvard has been shoring up its own policies regarding conflicts of interest in the wake of several high-profile cases of undisclosed industry ties involving employees at its medical school and affiliated institutions. On August 19, four days after Newsweek published its Q&A with Zittrain, B. D. Colen, Harvard’s senior communications officer for university science, who said he speaks for the university and not the law school, said that the university is in the process of requiring all schools within the next nine to twelve months to “meet or exceed” new conflict-of-interest guidelines. These include a provision regarding disclosure that would appear to have required Zittrain to spell out the Google connection in his interview with Newsweek (emphasis mine):

To promote the transparency essential to societal trust in the University and its faculty, faculty members receiving financial support for their academic work…are expected to disclose such interests and sources of support in all publications, public reports, communications to the media, and formal presentations, written or oral, concerning that work…. Disclosure of support and financial interests is also expected when faculty members are sought as experts to inform the public on matters of concern and to help shape public policy.

But journalists shouldn’t rely on their sources to disclose real or potential conflicts. Just as medical writers have learned to pay attention to the nexus between Big Pharma and the research and drug trials conducted by academics, similar questions about the nexus between technology companies and the academics they support should become a standard part of a journalist’s tool kit when they turn to experts to sort through complicated matters of technology policy. Having a financial connection to a story doesn’t necessarily disqualify someone from commenting on it. But disclosing that connection is part of the journalist’s duty to his audience.

 

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Emily Brill has written for The Philadelphia Inquirer and for The Daily Beast. She has worked at MSNBC's Morning Joe and for Journalism Online, LLC. She lives in New York.