Campus & Community

Navigating the Net — Kennedy School’s Jane Fountain helps chart future course for Internet

6 min read
Jane Fountain stands before a projected image of the Internet Policy Institute’s homepage. Photo by Kris Snibbe.

From her third-floor window at the Littauer Center along JFK Street, Jane Fountain, Associate Professor in Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, can peer out upon the hubbub that characterizes daily life in and around Harvard University. Her sight lines are about to expand, however, to encompass the rapidly-expanding World Wide Web, as Fountain begins a three-year appointment on the Research Advisory Board of the Internet Policy Institute (IPI), based in Washington, D.C.

The newly formed IPI, chaired by former Netscape Communications CEO Jim Barksdale and Georgia Institute of Technology President Wayne Clough, is considered the nation’s first major independent, nonprofit research and educational body designed to study and interpret the Internet, to outline its potential benefits and problems, and to help guide its future development. Its board members come from government, private enterprise, and nonprofit institutions, and they include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former presidential adviser Ira Magaziner. Fountain admits the opportunity to serve on such a prestigious panel, involved in such a salient mission, is “exciting,” but also a bit daunting, considering that the work begins at square one. “Given the revolutionary nature of the Internet, its economic and technological impacts, it’s extraordinary that we’ve waited so long for something like this to be established.”

The Institute has an ambitious agenda, calling for “objective, high-quality analysis, research, education, and outreach on economic, social, and policy issues affecting and affected by the global development and use of the Internet.” (Institute President Kimberly Jenkins has been quoted as labeling its long-term goal as becoming the “Brookings Institution for the Internet.”) The Research Advisory Board plans to issue periodic reports and papers detailing its research, and, in some cases, suggesting legislative action. Fountain, who has focused her research at Harvard on the “intersection between technology and government,” sees the Institute’s most important roles as “providing a forum for discussion, a forum for researchers,… and laying out issues and options… for policymakers.”

Fountain admits that this won’t be easy to do, since the breadth of issues the IPI deals with is so broad and so intense. It includes everything from privacy and security concerns, to the authenticity and credibility of information, to ensuring access, to the possibility of taxing e-commerce, to government regulation.

And through these murky waters, the Institute must chart its own course. “The preservation of Constitutional rights in this new space is a central problem area for researchers, for theorists, for policymakers,” Fountain says. “The medium is so different. We cannot simply transfer existing concepts readily to the [Internet]. We have to re-think privacy, freedom, and other basic societal rights.”

A top priority for e-commerce and digital government is Internet security. “You need to make sure the information you’re getting is authentic, and you need to make sure that senders and receivers of information are who they say they are,” Fountain says. She believes Congress may take action on consumer privacy before a new president is elected. Fountain also espouses the development of more sophisticated “technological controls: filters and rating systems” that would allow families and individuals to limit access to certain Web content. Those technological tools would maintain “freedom on the Web” while protecting individuals from objectionable content like pornography and gambling “that you would never think of putting on television, radio, or in the typical bookstores that people visit.”

On the broader social issue of the so-called “digital divide,” the term given to describe the gap between those with the financial and educational means to utilize the Internet, and those without those means, Fountain stands firm in her belief that all parties involved must work to ensure universal Internet access.

“The issue of access is critical,” Fountain explains. “We can’t have segmentation of school systems into those at the high end that will produce computer-literate, technologically sophisticated students and those [on the other end] with little or no literacy.” She also believes that policymakers “need to redesign employment and training programs, to think about how to better integrate people into the information age.”

As the information age continues to rapidly evolve, capacity on the Internet has also become a concern, according to Fountain. “We don’t have the adequate infrastructure right now to handle – over the next five to ten years – the rate of growth [on the net],” Fountain says. The development of a “next-generation Internet” is something the IPI will have to deal with immediately. “We need a backbone that has [more] capacity, that is robust, that has enough redundancy in it to be secure, and be reliable,” she says. “Without a reliable system as its foundation…we cannot have e-commerce at any significant level.”

Certainly, the viability of the Net as a commercial venture is directly tied to the success of e-commerce. However, while Fountain believes market forces will continue to spur the growth of both business-to-business and business-to-consumer e-markets, she thinks some controls may need to be implemented to guard against abuse. “There is no technological determinism that makes it inevitable for people to receive unsolicited email and unsolicited marketing advances [over the Internet],” she says. “There is also no technological inevitability to having highly personalized detailed data collected about individuals, and residing in private databases that can be bought and sold.” That’s where the IPI’s role as a bigger-picture think tank takes hold. “We are [charged with] constructing both the technological architecture, and the policy and social architectures…that will form the basis for the information society.”

As the information society continues to take shape over the next 10 years, Fountain contends the IPI’s work will be vital. “The Internet Policy Institute will not only inform and advise policymakers, but engage in a whole array of research in order to develop coherent, feasible policies.” Right now, she says, “we don’t even have much of the data we need for coherent policymaking.” But that will change, Fountain believes, as the Institute marches forward and begins exerting its influence, resulting in a bigger and better Internet that will serve the needs of the many, rather than the few.