Harvard Conference on Internet and Society

views updated


The Harvard Conference on Internet and Society is a high-profile event held every few years at Harvard University that brings together leading thinkers, policy-makers, technologists, businesses, and innovators involved with the Internet. At the conference, these individuals discuss and debate major topics relative to the development of the Internet, its impact on the economy and society, and its future direction. Moreover, the conference serves as an open forum where representatives from industry, government, academia, science, and interest groups can do a number of things. These include discussing the direction of the Internet as it pertains to continued industrial development and global competitiveness; working toward a consensus in the creation of innovative and complementary e-business infrastructures and strategies; negotiating concerns and goals for U.S. and international Internet policies regarding trade, regulation, taxation, and technological development; and speculating on the many ways in which the Internet could positively and negatively influence human life.

The first meeting took place in May 1996, at the dawn of the e-commerce age and before the economic boom fueled largely by the Internet and its related technologies. As a result, the general tenor of the conference centered on the novelty and promise of the Internet, including great speculation about the direction it would take and its place in history. Harvard University President Neil Rudenstine chimed in with a talk comparing the development of the Internet and its potential for research and information sharing with the modern university library infrastructure that emerged at the end of the 1800s.

By contrast, the 1998 gathering took place right in the middle of the dot-com boom. Companies and policy-makers alike were focused on the way to most vigorously embrace the Internet and turn it into a competitive tool. U.S. President Bill Clinton's Internet policy adviser, Ira Magaziner, issued a broad outline of the president's strategy for the Internet and information technology, noting that the boom in IT innovation was largely responsible for much of the country's mid-and late 1990s economic prosperity and charging the private sector with taking the lead in the development of the digital economy. Magaziner outlined that the general tendency of U.S. government was toward self-regulation of the Internet by the private sector, rather than the top-down regulation favored by many European countries.

At the same meeting, top executives from IBM, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, and other major industry players contributed their thoughts on how the Internet and related information technologies not only were opening up new business channels via the emergence of e-commerce, but were also transforming the ways in which old and new businesses alike operate. Esther Dyson, one of the noted public intellectuals of the digital age, weighed in with her notion that small companies were going to be the primary engines of innovation in the Internet era.

While optimism and the drive for new business opportunities were the thrust of the 1998 conference, it wasn't short on negativity. The most obvious target was the Microsoft Corp. At the time, Microsoft was at the outset of its investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged antitrust violations. Heads of rival companies in the Internet business took turns taking Microsoft to task for what they saw as heavy-handed business tactics.

When the year 2000 conference rolled around, it lacked the feeling of boundless optimism, particularly related to the possibilities of e-commerce, that characterized earlier meetings. Scheduled just after the precipitous decline of the NASDAQ stock market and in the midst of the massive e-commerce shakeout, the meeting took place during a time of relative uncertainty for Internet companies. So instead of a focus on business opportunities and speeches from leading Internet players, the 2000 conference was geared more heavily toward issues of public policy, social uses of the Internet, and politics; odes to the financial gold-mines waiting to be discovered on the Internet were barely visible. The conference primarily concentrated on how the Internet transforms human social life via alterations in business practices, policy, law, technology, and education. The ability of the Internet to allow political parties to quickly disseminate personalized information during campaigns was widely discussed, as was the Internet's utility as a campaign fundraising vehicle. Keynote speaker and Internet pioneer Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corp., took the opportunity to decry the excessive commercialization of the Web and its attendant "strip mall" feel. In place of an online shopping medium, Kapor called for enhanced emphasis on the Internet's original purpose: to facilitate greater communication, networking, and understanding throughout the world.

The Harvard Conference also served other, less lofty purposes as well. Companies used the conference as a platform for public relations and marketing by showcasing new products and hyping innovative new business models. Individuals and firms sometimes took to settling personal scores through thinly veiled jabs, underscoring some of the political overtones of the event. But the common, recognized purpose of the Harvard Conference on Internet and Society was to seek out a positive development scheme for the Internet. Such contentious social issues as the digital divide and the commercialization of the Internet were assessed, argued, and theorized, with an eye toward forming a general policy framework in which the Internet could develop for the greatest overall benefit to society, consistent with the various interlocking interests the attendees represent.


Bradner, Scott. "The Web as Luther, the Net as Widener." Network World. June 10, 1996.

Kaplan, Karen. "Harvard Conference on Internet and Society: At Highbrow Event, Low Blows for Microsoft." Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1998.

Katz, Frances. "Internet Access, Microsoft Top Harvard Agenda." Atlanta Journal and Constitution. May 31, 1998.

. "The Party's Over." Atlanta Journal and Constitution. June 25, 2000.

Machlis, Sharon. "Crystal Balls Focus on Internet and on E-Commerce at Harvard Confab." Computer World. June 1, 1998.

O'Reilly Associates, eds. The Harvard Conference on the Internet & Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Weil, Nancy. "Group to Manage Domain Names." InfoWorld. June 8, 1998.

"Welcome to Harvard Third Annual Internet & Society Conference Web Site." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2000. Available from www.is2k.harvard.edu.

SEE ALSO: Cyberculture; Digital Divide; Global E-Commerce Regulation; Microsoft Corp.; Shakeout, Dot-com