Open letter calls on MIT to do more in Tidbit's legal battle
UPDATE TO THIS ARTICLE: Update, Feb. 16: President L. Rafael Reif announced his intention to create a "resource for independent legal advice" to support "student inventors and entrepreneurs" in an email Saturday evening, two days after Professor Hal Abelson PhD '73, Ethan Zuckerman, and Nathan Matias G began seeking signatures for their open letter. Reif also said that Tidbit's student creators had the "full and enthusiastic support of MIT" and that MIT would "remain in close coordination with the students and the EFF to offer assistance in the legal proceedings." Correction, Feb. 15: A previous version of this article implied that Professor Hal Abelson PhD '73 wrote the "petition" to President L. Rafael Reif. In fact, the authors are Abelson, Ethan Zuckerman, and Nathan Matias G, and they call it an "open letter." The article also misstated Matias's name. The article has also been updated to include a comment from Jeremy Rubin '16, as well as more comments from MIT, Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD '88, and Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD '88.
An open letter circulated online Thursday urged MIT to take a stand on a pending court case involving Jeremy L. Rubin ‘16, who was served a subpoena by New Jersey for documents, correspondence, and code associated with a Bitcoin-related project called Tidbit.
The letter, which at press time had been signed by more than 500 MIT affiliates, was written by Professor Hal Abelson PhD ’73; Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media; and Nathan Matias G, a graduate student at the Media Lab. They wrote that MIT has an institutional interest in the case and should tell New Jersey to withdraw the subpoena, which they called “an affront to our academic freedom” and said will have “a chilling effect on MIT teaching and research.”
Tidbit is intended to allow websites to make money without ads by running bitcoin-mining code on users’ browsers. The creators of Tidbit, Rubin, Kevin C. King ’15, Oliver R. Song ’14, and Carolyn Zhang ’14, won a prize for having the most innovative project in November at the Node Knockout hackathon, where they built a prototype.
Then, in December, Rubin was contacted by the New Jersey attorney general’s office, which asked for, among other things, a list of all websites “affected by the Bitcoin code,” copies of “all contracts and/or agreements” with customers, “[a]ll documents and correspondence concerning all breaches and/or unauthorized access to computers by you,” and “[a]ll codes, source codes, control logs, and installation logs concerning the Bitcoin code.”
New Jersey later said they were investigating whether Tidbit had violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.
When Rubin approached MIT’s lawyers after receiving the subpoena, they said they could not represent Rubin or Tidbit in court, but one of them advised Rubin to seek help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for digital rights. EFF agreed to help Rubin pro bono, and they have moved to quash the subpoena.
“MIT stands ready to support these students in their defense against the legal actions against them,” a statement from MIT on Thursday read. “We advised the students that it was in their best interest to secure independent legal advice. We are eager to work with them and their counsel in a vigorous defense of this matter.”
Rubin wrote in an email that MIT’s lawyers “have not been involved since our initial interaction.”
But Abelson, a computer science professor and a founding director of Creative Commons, said that MIT should do more and contact both the New Jersey judge and the New Jersey attorney general.
MIT’s response was “‘Hey, I know a good lawyer,’” Abelson told The Tech. “MIT should have said, ‘Hey, this is MIT business because it is harmful to the institution.’”
Part of MIT’s mission, “training young people to imagine, create, and disseminate projects that expand the possibilities of technology,” the open letter read, is “under serious risk.” MIT’s administration “is not working to mitigate that risk.”
Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88 said that the open letter was “a little out of the blue.” The best legal counsel for students, he said, is outside counsel “that’s focused only on their interest, as opposed to their interest and the Institute’s interest.” He cited the way MIT helped Rubin find free legal help at EFF as an example of how MIT was behind its students.
Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 said that students in Rubin’s situation should always feel that they have the support of “all of MIT.” The Institute would use “all the resources that would be relevant” to “support them as best we can,” she said.
Abelson said that MIT should take action as an institution to protect not only the students but also the academic freedom he said is necessary to allow future innovators to thrive.
“New Jersey’s subpoena challenges our ability to share our work,” the letter reads. “If Rubin and his fellow MIT undergraduates experience serious legal consequences for describing their ideas in public, and if MIT declines to support them, how can we ever responsibly continue to advise our students to disseminate their work in public? Furthermore, since Tidbit is an innovation that could have been produced by faculty or graduate students in the course of our own research, we consider this subpoena to have a chilling effect on our own work.”
The letter is addressed to President L. Rafael Reif. Abelson, Zuckerman, and Matias said they plan to send the letter to Reif next Monday, and are still seeking signatures. They also plan to write another letter to the New Jersey judge.
The Student Information Processing Board (SIPB), too, is preparing to send a letter to Reif urging MIT to support Rubin and his hackathon teammates, according to SIPB’s chair, Justin M. Dove G. The student group also plans to provide an example letter to undergraduates and encourage them to send their own letters to Reif.
Last year, Abelson led an investigation, commissioned by Reif, into MIT’s involvement in the prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz. The report that came out of that investigation concluded with several questions, including “Should an MIT education address the personal ethics and legal obligations of technology empowerment?” and “What are MIT’s obligations to members of our extended community?” The report also asked what MIT should do, internally and in the public sphere, to support “hacker culture” and technical innovation.
But Abelson said there is “a big difference” between the Swartz case and the subpoena served to Rubin and Tidbit. “These students did nothing wrong. Not a thing. For whatever Aaron’s intentions were, what these students did was not even mischievous.”
Rubin’s lawyer at EFF, Hanni Fakhoury, has said that the hackathon project was only a proof of concept and that Tidbit did not even have the ability to mine bitcoins yet.
Fakhoury also argued that New Jersey has no jurisdiction over Tidbit and asked that Rubin be granted immunity from prosecution should the subpoena stand, citing constitutional protections against self-incrimination.
In response, the New Jersey acting attorney general wrote that New Jersey was “authorized to investigate whether any person, whether located in New Jersey or elsewhere, has engaged in, is engaging in or is about to engage in any unlawful practice in violation of the [New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act] that affects New Jersey consumers.”
A court hearing is expected soon, but the date is still unknown, according to Fakhoury.