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The mysterious illness of Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain

March 16, 2010 | 10:33 am

First off, Jonathan Zittrain is OK.

But the Harvard law professor and digital freedom advocate is in the hospital after suffering from mysterious night fevers that evaded diagnosis.

Zittrain His condition would have remained shrouded in all the privacy a hospital gown can provide had a colleague not asked a medical blog to consult its audience of mostly doctors to help unravel the mystery condition.

All blogging about Zittrain only referred to him by his initials. “There was no reason to make a few days’ blogging of health issues googleable with my name as a search term forever!” Zittrain wrote on his blog in a post entitled "The Future of Zittrain Has Not Been Stopped“ (a play on the title of his book: "The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it").

"The blog produced some amazingly helpful comments from people and doctors at large, including references to two discrete academic journal articles — one from a Korean medical journal from 1994! Thanks to the Net I had a copy on my PC and then e-faxed to the nurse’s station on my floor in a matter of minutes. In the meantime, over the course of today (Monday), additional results have come back to help narrow the diagnosis in a properly documentable and formal way — one that’s converging, it seems, to the obscure Korean article. To be clear, the terrific doctors here have been methodically arriving at this diagnosis already.

“If that is indeed the diagnosis — and more tests are needed to rule out some other long-tail possible causes — the prognosis is good — certainly much better than some of the diagnoses floating around last week!”

As one observer pointed out: Zittrain had just produced what could be a fascinating episode of “House” by sourcing the wisdom of the online masses to crack a tricky case.

But as this Internet denizen well knows: Nothing stays private for long. The trouble began when BoingBoing spotted Harvard Law Professsor Lawrence Lessig’s tweet for help that “JZ” was ill. Someone put two and two together and the message soon became: “Jonathan Zittrain is really sick and needs help finding out why!”

Unfortunately, at this point, Zittrain no longer needed any help.

“The diagnostic phase is drawing to a close, and the kind of out-of-the-box brainstorming we’d hoped to draw from targeted crowdsourcing had, wonderfully, happened,” he wrote. “There’s been no desire to trumpet to everyone that I’m illin’, nor any need to do something like raise $100,000 for a transplant or find a matching marrow donor through a distributed appeal to the world.”

BoingBoing took down the post (see new post here) and a blog for his friends and family about his hospital stay will be once again protected by a password “in the obscurity where it belongs,” Zittrain said.

But this had now become a case of too much information: Zittrain's personal medical crisis is roaming the Web. “Trying to put a cat back in the bag is not easy,” he acknowledged.

Remarked one pal: “Glad you’re back on track. Learning of a friend’s sickness through BoingBoing is both surreal and a bit scary.”

And another: “Great that you’re doing OK. (Honestly, I was concerned by a retweet of a retweet of a hat tip to Lessig’s tweet that implied that an alien had attached itself to your face). 

"Oh, just one more thing: This whole Tumblr –> boingboing thing sure makes a strong point about the difficulty of de-identifying health information. Right in the middle of a huge debate over privacy, you’re generated a fantastic anecdote about the limits of anonymization. It just seems awfully convenient.

-- Jessica Guynn

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