The practice of standardization has been facilitating innovation and economic growth for centuries. The standardization of the railroad gauge revolutionized the flow of commodities, the standardization of money revolutionized debt markets and simplified trade, and the standardization of credit networks has allowed for the purchase of goods using money deposited in a bank half a world away. These advancements did not eradicate the different systems they affected; instead, each system has been transformed so that it can interoperate with systems all over the world, while still preserving local diversity.
As Palfrey and Gasser show, interoperability is a critical aspect of any successful system—and now it is more important than ever. Today we are confronted with challenges that affect us on a global scale: the financial crisis, the quest for sustainable energy, and the need to reform health care systems and improve global disaster response systems. The successful flow of information across systems is crucial if we are to solve these problems, but we must also learn to manage the vast degree of interconnection inherent in each system involved. Interoperability offers a number of solutions to these global challenges, but Palfrey and Gasser also consider its potential negative effects, especially with respect to privacy, security, and co-dependence of states; indeed, interoperability has already sparked debates about document data formats, digital music, and how to create successful yet safe cloud computing. Interop demonstrates that, in order to get the most out of interoperability while minimizing its risks, we will need to fundamentally revisit our understanding of how it works, and how it can allow for improvements in each of its constituent parts.
John Palfrey is Henry N. Ess Professor of Law and Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School. He is the co-author of "Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives" (Basic Books, 2008) and "Access Denied: The Practice and Politics of Internet Filtering" (MIT Press, 2008). His research and teaching is focused on Internet law, intellectual property, and international law. He practiced intellectual property and corporate law at the law firm of Ropes & Gray. He is a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Outside of Harvard Law School, he is a Venture Executive at Highland Capital Partners and serves on the board of several technology companies and non-profits. John served as a special assistant at the US EPA during the Clinton Administration. He is a graduate of Harvard College, the University of Cambridge, and Harvard Law School.
Urs Gasser is the Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He teaches at Harvard Law School, at the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland) and Fudan University School of Management (China). He is a visiting professor at KEIO University (Japan) and a Fellow at the Gruter Institute for Law and Behavioral Research. Urs Gasser has written several books, is the co author of “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives” (Basic Books, 2008, with John Palfrey) that has been translated into 10 languages (including Chinese), and has published over 70 articles in professional journals. His research and teaching activities focus on information law and policy issues. Current projects, several of them in collaboration with leading research institutions in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, explore policy and educational challenges for young Internet users, the regulation of digital technology (currently with focus on cloud computing), ICT interoperability, information quality, the law’s impact on innovation and risk in the ICT space, and alternative governance systems. He graduated from the University of St. Gallen (J.D., S.J.D.) as well as Harvard Law School (LL.M.) and received several academic awards and prizes for his research.