Student innovators may get new legal resource

Tidbit’s legal battle prompts letter from Reif, who vows support for Rubin & team

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Abelson sent a draft of the letter to Reif, Barnhart, and Morgan before soliciting signatures throughout the MIT community on Thursday Feb. 13. In fact, Abelson sent the administrators the draft shortly after sending it to CSAIL members on that date.

President L. Rafael Reif sent a letter to the MIT community Saturday evening clarifying the Institute’s support for the student creators of Tidbit, the Bitcoin-harvesting hackathon project, which was the subject of a subpoena from the State Attorney General of New Jersey served to Jeremy L. Rubin ’16. The response, which also includes a proposal for a new “resource for independent legal advice” for students, comes after Professor Hal Abelson PhD ’73; Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media; and Nathan Matias G released a widely-circulated open letter advocating that MIT take an official stance on the matter.

Reif’s letter to the MIT community reads, “Beyond this specific case, I believe we should provide our student inventors and entrepreneurs with a resource for independent legal advice, singularly devoted to their interests and rights.”

In a statement provided to The Boston Globe and The Tech, Chancellor Cindy Barnhart PhD ’88 said of the proposal, “We are excited about the potential for such a resource to serve our student innovators, but we are just starting to imagine how it will take shape to serve them best. Provost Marty Schmidt PhD ’88, General Counsel Gregory R. Morgan and I will begin developing these ideas immediately. It will be important to build this thoughtfully and get the structure right, and we are eager to move on this quickly.”

Abelson said in an interview with The Boston Globe that such a program would have to be “very carefully designed” to avoid conflicts of interest.

In both the letter and two interviews with The Tech, Abelson clarified his view that any action MIT takes should focus on the long-term preservation of innovation freedom. He described his perception of the MIT community’s reaction: “When you’re confronted by something like that, your first reaction is ‘Hey, they are students and are getting hammered.’” He maintained, however, that any official action on MIT’s part would have to be on the basis of protecting its long-term interests in innovation.

Hanni Fakhoury, Rubin’s pro bono legal representation with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said in an email to The Tech that they are encouraged by Reif’s message. “It’s a good first step and we’re optimistic they’ll follow through on their promises of offering support to the students. What that will specifically look like is something we’re thinking about right now.”

“We’ve been in touch with the MIT administration and will continue to communicate about how they can help the specific students affiliated with Tidbit, but also how they can help other students in the future who receive similar requests,” said Fakhoury.

While Abelson indicated that he had not been in contact with the members of the Tidbit team, Fakhoury said, “We’re grateful for all the hard work Hal has put in towards getting this on the MIT administration’s radar.” He noted that concern for both the students in this specific case and academic freedom in general were important to the response, adding, “[W]e’re focused on harnessing that concern into specific action.

Referring to the broader implications of the case, Fakhoury stated, “Given MIT’s rich history and its reputation as a place of innovation, it would seem that the university would have a significant interest in allowing its students and faculty to feel that they have the freedom to research and tinker without the fear of overhanded government action.”

Abelson shared a similar view, saying, “There is an MIT issue, and it’s way, way bigger than an MIT issue. It’s an issue about the Internet.” He said that the overreach of local authorities has “been a threat to the growth of the Internet, because you’re subject to any jurisdiction,” but that the Internet community pushes back in such cases.

Abelson said the authors sent a draft of the letter to Reif, Barnhart, and Morgan last Thursday shortly after beginning to solicit signatures throughout the MIT community. Abelson said that as far as he knew, the top administration was not aware of the Tidbit subpoena before the letter.

MIT’s Student Information Processing Board (SIPB) late last week also emailed multiple MIT lists soliciting signatures for Abelson’s letter and providing a template for contacting Reif’s office regarding the matter.

While the instructions for signing the letter indicated that it would be sent to Reif on Monday, Abelson said, “I haven’t sent it yet. I think the plan is to send it to them [Tuesday].” Since Reif is out of town, Abelson expected Ethan Zuckerman to deliver it to Barnhart.