Open letter calls on MIT to do more in Tidbit's legal battle

6584 abelson
Hal Abelson in 2007.
Wikimedia Commons

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.

Anonymous about 4 years ago

MIT needs to support these kids to make a statement about the research that happens at The Institute. If MIT can share in the fruits of research success (patents, financial rewards, etc), they need to support students through the challenges of research. This is a bigger issue well beyond these kids. What happened to them could happen to any MIT student or faculty member in the course of research, discovery, and innovation.

Anonymous about 4 years ago

"These students did nothing wrong. Not a thing."

The implication being Aaron did? Abelson keeps saying stupid things. His article on the Swartz case for the MIT Tech Review was atrocious. Some impartial observer he is.

I agree with his petition, though. MIT has often been unsupportive of its students. The Star Simpson case comes to mind...

Anonymous about 4 years ago

Remember Aaron Swartz..... President Reif, please act!

Anonymous about 4 years ago

Uh this has nothing to do with Aaron Swartz...

Anonymous about 4 years ago

I feel like this is kind of being overblown. It's just a subpoena. They'll look at the code, look at the project, and see that it's not violating any laws, and it's not even being used in New Jersey for the time being. Then nothing will happen. Even so, the project is incapable of generating any profitable amount of bitcoin anyway. It's just a fun project.

Besides, using people's compute time for profit, potentially without their consent, is pretty shady.

Why waste the legal fees?

Anonymous about 4 years ago

Unfortunately, this event is not a simple matter of clarification. It raises a tremendously important problem, namely that independent research is not immune from public prosecution. That an awarded paper published under a grant is very unlikely to result in a subpoena, somehow does not extend to an unfunded research. This trend must be actively counteracted, unless we want prosecution offices to prevent abuse by hunting down the research.

As a sideline, show me a software product that uses my CPU time in an endorsed way. What about CPU-hours, network bandwidth and simply my nerve cells eaten by profit-hungry web-advertising?

Anonymous about 4 years ago

This is not to be taken lightly, When a State AG files s subpoena it's damn serious. For those who don't know, NJ Gov. Christie's office has been subpoenaed in the "bridgegate" matter (see google) where state officials are suspected of blocking access to the George Washington Bridge between NJ and NY, which is the busiest bridge in the world, for four days causing a huge traffic jam in the City of Fort Lee NJ as payback for the mayor not backing Christie in his reelection campaign.

Anonymous about 4 years ago

Very weak response, President Reif, and deeply disappointing.

This is the direct consequence of your having caved to prosecutors in the Aaron Schwartz matter. You either stand up to the government bullies, or you will lick their boots forever.

Were I President of MIT, I would announce that no applications for admittance to MIT will be accepted from the fascist State of New Jersey until that state backs down, issues a full apology, and promises to behave in the future. I am quite serious.

The MIT administration has become little more than an employment agency for lawyers, first in the Aaron Schwatz debacle and now this. Forget the "pro bono" legal assistance. MAN UP! Tell New Jersey to go the hell. They have no power to enforce their publicity-seeking actions anyway.

In the name of all that is science, what has happened to you?

David '82 about 4 years ago

MIT? Alumni Assoc? Here's a good opportunity to set up a new category for my charitable contributions to go to support the vigorous defense of the digital frontier and our futures students adventures exploring thereof. Let me know when I can send my check!

Jim Gust '75 about 4 years ago

On the contrary, David '82, I will suspend my contributions to MIT unless they heed Professor Abelson's call for a much more robust response (I think I'm a member of the 1861 club or something). The spectacle of another rogue Attorney General trampling around MIT, with MIT meekly telling a student "get your own lawyer," is revolting. That is not "support." That is "cover your ass."

Specious claims by idiot government bureaucrats need to be confronted vigorously and ruthlessly, by MIT, as an institution. Why would I want to divert my charitable contributions to still more lawyers? I prefer to support science.

MIT has all the resources it needs to set this right. It only has to decide to use them. Unfortunately, the timid MIT house counsel appears to prefer to not make waves.

You don't stop bullies by cooperating with them. Call them out. Take it to the Federal Courts. Make New Jersey pay a price for their foolishness. The New Jersey authorities have no constitutional power to reach into Cambridge in their quest for "glory." Make them stop.

Try to make us proud of being MIT alumni.

Paolo about 4 years ago

But anyone can be sued if "stealing" computer power without the knowledge of the user? So we should all sue Microsoft or Adobe for all that Flash animations that steal a lot of computer power without my consent :-)

Anonymous about 4 years ago

It is disheartening for Reif to only respond in support of the students after the letter compelled him to do so. And then, for other members of the administration to act as though they supported the students all along, is simply shameful. MIT needs to find its spine, and quickly.

Steve Rawlinson about 4 years ago

I do not think that this thing is overblown. A government official is asking for proprietary code with no guarantee of maintaining confidentiality. The request for documents is so extensive that compliance will be a very taxing experience. This is not just about academic freedom. It is about the freedom to start a business. This is interstate commerce, and the Federal Government would have the right to investigate, but the New Jersey Attorney General is exceeding his authority.

ZPAM about 4 years ago

Well its pretty obvious to me that this little smarty pants has done something wrong. If he had not then they wouldn't subponed his records. If you didn't do anything wrong why are you trying to hide?

Anon '66 about 4 years ago

I am an alumnus, and a retired lawyer.

I share Mr. Gust's assessment of the Corporation's present pusillanimity. However, not all alumni have such a strong record of contributions that their withholding contributions would have significant effect.

For that reason (and because I also believe it inherently a worthy undertaking), I also agree with David '82 at 12:05 PM on February 16, 2014, who calls for: "... a new category for my charitable contributions to go to support the vigorous defense of the digital frontier and our futures students adventures exploring thereof."

I would contribute to such a fund, though modestly by personal necessity. I would hope such an earmarked fund would support the most vigorous legal defense possible of students developing technology, against the predations of crusading government officials seeking to quash such development efforts.

Steve Rawlinson about 4 years ago

No, ZPAM, it is not obvious that a little smarty pants has done something wrong. It is far more likely that some lawyer in the NJ Attorney General's Office is looking for legal glory at the expense of a poor student entrepreneur. This enterprise is associated with Bitcoin, and governments are bound to be scared of Bitcoin and will eventually take action to shut it down. I think ZPAM would be just the kind of citizen that Putin would like to have live in Russia.