Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain Discusses Three Eras of Governing Digital Platforms

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on February 5, 2021


“I think a big part of what’s occasioning the challenges in front of us and our sense of unease is that the technology has worked, it’s done the job of taking what was formally fortuity –something that you can’t predict to the future. Even if you’re very powerful and have big banks of computers, that you can’t control what’s going on in the world because it’s a complicated world out there. And more and more, that is less and less true. And figuring out the allocations of power as humanity as a whole, in the kind of economic aggregate sense, is gaining more power through technology. But each of us, as citizens, may be feeling less empowered, somehow more embattled, is the tension I want to explore today.”
- Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard University, from his 2020 Tanner Lecture on Human Values


Last year, just before the pandemic restricted travel, Professor Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard University, was invited to present the 2020 Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Clare Hall, Cambridge. His two-part lecture, titled “Gaining Power, Losing Control,” reflects on how technology has empowered humanity, and yet in many ways, we have less and less control.


In the first lecture, “Between Abdication and Suffocation: Three Eras of Governing Digital Platforms,” Professor Zittrain shares several years of thinking around digital governance, and debates the responsibilities of online platforms for hate speech, disinformation, and harassment. The second lecture, “With Great Power Comes Great Ignorance: What’s Wrong When Machine Learning Gets It Right?,” focuses on the notion of intellectual debt –utilizing what works without knowing why it works can complicate outcomes in unpredictable ways.


The first lecture, “Between Abdication and Suffocation: Three Eras of Governing Digital Platforms,” is now being shared on YouTube. Below are some key takeaways from Professor Zittrain’s lecture.


“Figuring out the allocations of power as humanity as a whole, in the kind of economic aggregate sense, is gaining more power through technology. But each of us, as citizens, may be feeling less empowered, somehow more embattled. [This] is the tension I want to explore today.”


Three Eras of Governance for Online Platforms


The first era started around 1995 and was an era of rights. Much of the discourse around online platforms focused on the risk of censorship and control by external forces, whether governmental or corporate.


1995: The big worry among people in my neck of the woods, thinking about technology, was, “Let’s make sure that all these new things we can do, including surfing a worldwide web, courtesy of Sir Tim, of being able to download, to upload, all sorts of things, we don’t want to be treated like sheep. We’re worried that the government will surveil us, will control us. We’ve got to be resilient against that threat. And that’s why I call the era starting in 1995, the Rights Era. And here I mean rights in a very narrow sense. There’s lots of meanings of rights. I mean it in the kind of Americanized, prototypical sense of “I’m just here. I’m in my automated vehicle or whatever it is. Leave me alone. Let me have my freedoms.” That distinct sense of rights.


The second era, the public health era, began around 2010, and it weighed the priorities of the rights era against the various concrete harms arising from the platform’s use and abuse, such as disinformation, or campaigns against vaccination. In this era, the worry is about broad, systemic harms from unmediated communication and the indifference by platforms who could do something about it.


The very platforms that were enabling things that we wanted to leave us alone; now the concern is, what a minute, these platforms are leaving things alone. They are abdicating. And they are: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. That is not good because there’s a lot of evil that they are facilitating and that they could stop. And I call this era, the era of Public Health. It’s very different from the Rights Era. And it focuses on the ways in which technology is allowing new forms of harm to come about, but may contain within it the seeds of amelioration, if only we are bold enough to compel or sway those intermediaries, those platforms that are empowering us also to impose limits and control in the name of public health.


Today, in 2020, there is no easy way to balance the rights and public health frameworks; there is a need for a new process era of internet governance centered around frameworks for managing clashes between them.


There ought to be ways to facilitate agreements among the people affected across jurisdictional boundaries to formalize them in some way, effectively writing them down, and then to say cheers and feel good about what that process generates even if you don’t agree with a given result. And I call that the Process Era that is right around now, if we are lucky, just starting up.


This new era of more formal external process, to try to achieve legitimacy, is at just the time that digital intermediaries, in part thanks to AI, really can and do monitor and intervene in the flow of information, for better or worse. Abdication is now a choice, not a necessity.


The process era is not yet in full swing. However, Professor Zittrain asks, when do technology companies’ growing powers and capabilities constitute an imperative to intervene against the problems and harms they facilitate?


I want to ask from a regulatory and ethical perspective, when does “can” imply “ought”. When is it that when you can do something, now you’re responsible, should you not do anything? That’s the problem: the issue of abdication raised because, no longer is it, “Well, it’s just a bunch of bits and these intermediaries, how could they possibly control it?” thought of the rights era. … There’s a new power that is finally prompting us to ask that question, especially in the area of social media.


Lecture One, “Between Suffocation and Abdication: Three Eras of Governing Digital Platforms,” is available for viewing on YouTube:


The Tanner Lectures on Human Values were established by the American scholar, industrialist, and philanthropist, Obert Clark Tanner in 1978. The purpose of the Tanner lectures is to advance and reflect upon the scholarly and scientific learning related to human values. Appointment as a Tanner Lecturer is a recognition of uncommon achievement and outstanding abilities in the domain of human values. Multiple prestigious universities host the lecture series.


More information:

Jonathan Zittrain is the George Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School and Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Director of the Harvard Law School Library, and co-founder of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. His research interests include battles for control of digital property and content, cryptography, electronic privacy, the roles of intermediaries within Internet architecture, human computing, and the useful and unobtrusive deployment of technology in education. He is currently focused on the ethics and governance of artificial intelligence and teaches a course on the topic.