Among the many issues raised following the suicide of hacker activist Aaron Swartz was the failure of MIT to take a stand, instead merely being compliant with the government rather than proactive about the prosecution. MIT could have told the government to get lost. It didn’t. It did as it was told.
Since then, another prosecution has dirtied the Institution, this time involving some undergrads who created a program called “Tidbit” for the Node Knockout hackathon. From the Tech:
Tidbit is intended to allow websites to make money without ads by running bitcoin-mining code on users’ browsers. The creators of Tidbit, [Jeremy] 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.”
So some kids created a program as part of their college education and it offended somebody in New Jersey, who subpoenaed a sophomore. And what did MIT do about protecting their student?
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.
Thankfully, a group like the Electronic Frontier Foundation exists and is both willing and capable of standing up for Rubin pro bono. That said, it hardly removes MIT from the mix any more than it did for Swartz. This was their student. This was a school project. And this, like Swartz, put him in jeopardy.
While it may be, though it’s hardly a foregone conclusion, that MIT couldn’t take the lead in defending their student, the rhetorical response was supportive:
“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.”
Sweet, but for the fact that “Rubin wrote in an email that MIT’s lawyers ‘have not been involved since our initial interaction.'” Words of support aren’t exactly quite as helpful as, well, actual support, and there was none of that.
To his enormous credit, Professor Abelson didn’t shrug off this new situation:
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.’”
Instead, Abelson, together with others, wrote an “open letter” to MIT President L. Rafael Reif:
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.”
While lawyers may view this response as still a bit too tepid for their tastes, an open challenge by a highly regarded and well-trusted professor carried substantial weight within the academic community. Abelson, having shepherded the investigation into MIT’s failure to take a stand in the Swartz case, used the capital he accumulated to push.
The Tech article has since been updated to note a response by Reif:
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.”
What is meant by “full and enthusiastic support” remains to be seen. Will it be more rhetoric, a tummy rub or the full legal, material and persuasive support of the Institution, including its direct involvement as amicus in challenging this attack on its students for doing what they were taught to do by MIT, remains to be seen.
This isn’t to suggest that the EFF isn’t up to the job. It is, and will no doubt vigorously defend Rubin against the subpoena. But the EFF can’t do everything for everyone, and can’t be expected to serve as a substitute, a crutch, for MIT or any educational institution.
At some point, higher education needs to come to grips with the fact that they are involved, whether they like it or not, in the legal system. Their effort to demur is just as much of a choice as actually taking a stand, whether for or against, attacks on their pedagogy and students. It’s just the wrong choice.
That MIT failed Aaron Swartz will forever be a black mark on the Institution. At least it should serve as a learning opportunity. From MIT’s response to the subpoena of Jeremy Rubin, it doesn’t appear that they’ve learned anything. Whether Abelson’s open letter brings about a real grasp of its involvement, and duty, to stand up and matter, remains to be seen.