Opinion guest column

Why Joi Ito needs to resign

We need to set a standard that ensures a safe future for women where money will never be seen as more valuable than their lives

The first and only time that I had a meeting with Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab where I am a student, was early this year in the spring of 2019. Ito is a very busy man and it’s difficult to get time with him. Meetings are only fifteen minutes long. 

The content of our meeting doesn’t matter; it’s how the meeting transpired that stuck with me. Two men and I, a woman, sat in Ito’s conference room across from him at a round table. Ito barely looked me in the eye, his eyes firmly on his phone or laptop as he typed away. My colleagues and I exchanged glances with each other, unsure if he was paying attention. As much as it seemed he wasn’t, he responded to our questions and our thoughts. He’s an extremely competent multi-tasker. That said, what stared me in the face was the clock on a screen that faced us. It was a countdown timer that told us both how much of his time we had left and served as a reminder of how importantly he viewed his time.

Now, at a time of immense urgency, when students and faculty alike are calling for answers, Ito seems to be casually ignoring the timer. His response to a student advocacy group demanding answers was to meet sometime in the fall to see how to best move forward. A part of me wonders if this is a time-wasting strategy — the keen knowledge that if he wastes enough time, this too shall pass. I’m here to say that we will not let it pass. I am calling for the immediate resignation of MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito because of his deep connections with Epstein, his lack of leadership explaining his involvement, and the lack of transparency about the extent of his interactions with Epstein. Not only is this issue personal to me, but it is personal to women everywhere.

This is not an MIT issue, and this is not a Joi Ito issue. This is an international issue where a global network of powerful individuals have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women’s bodies and lives. The MIT Media Lab was nicknamed “The Future Factory” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. We are supposed to reflect the future, not just of technology but of society. When I call for Ito’s resignation, I’m fighting for the future of women. 

Let me take a step back.

Who is to blame for the fact that Epstein got away with pedophilia and sexual slavery of underaged girls? He is entirely to blame for his actions. But the people who surrounded him are also to blame for allowing his actions to continue for so long.

Recently, students of the Media Lab received a watery apology from Ito where he apologized for engaging with Epstein and taking money from him on behalf of the Media Lab. The apology came as a shock to most people who were unaware of Epstein’s association with the lab, and it smells like a man who is sorry for getting caught; not one with remorse for wittingly choosing to include a sexual predator in the Media Lab (and in his own personal ventures) because of good money and an even better network. The relationship between Epstein and the Media Lab dates back to Marvin Minsky, a founder of the Media Lab accused of obtaining sexual services from an underage girl.

I am a master’s student in the Center for Civic Media, led by Ethan Zuckerman. Our group’s tagline is “Creating Technology for Social Change.” Zuckerman recently released a statement on his stance regarding the Ito/Epstein case. To put it succinctly, Ito asked Zuckerman if he would like to meet with Epstein in 2014. Zuckerman declined and urged Ito not to meet with him either because of his heinous actions. Ito consistently did so nonetheless over the years, unbeknownst to Zuckerman, and for that and other complications with the Media Lab, Zuckerman has stated that he and his research group will not be a part of the Media Lab after this year. I stand by my advisor’s bold decision to leave the Media Lab.

That said, it is a shame that the Media Lab will lose a group which has been dedicated to championing social justice now that Zuckerman has made his decision. At the end of the day, he is a white man with the privilege to leave the lab with his career intact. That’s not the case for me and other students taking a stand like this. If the Media Lab cares and wants to be the progressive lab of the future, it has to start with people before technology. The Media Lab needs to lose Joi Ito.

I’m writing about Ito, not because I think he ever participated in the heinous acts Epstein was accused of, but because his willful ignorance of Epstein’s record contributed to the harm of the victims. A well-written New Yorker article by Amy Davidson Sorkin details how much of Epstein’s power lay in his powerful network of men, many of whom were in academia. Another article, by Philip Weiss in 2007, says that when asked about his child prostitution charges, Epstein responded, “Have you managed to talk to many of my friends? ... Do you understand what an extraordinary group of people they are, what they have accomplished in their fields?”

Epstein is now dead. What retribution do the victims get for his crimes that went unpunished for decades? Almost none, certainly, given that the list of powerful names associated with Epstein will likely ensure that this case disappears.

In the case of Ito and the MIT Media Lab, there exist several layers of hypocrisy. Ito has made a name for himself as an ethicist in his field. Further, the Media Lab is responsible for the Disobedience Award, which this year, honored the women who started the #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM movements. In an email to the Media Lab, a student wrote that she was forced to send a Disobedience Award goblet to Epstein against her wishes. 

Ito isn’t a terrible person — he is not Epstein. Yet, we have a bad history of forgiving talented men who wield power. In response to Ito’s email, I asked questions about his ignorance of the nine cases facing Epstein since 2008 and demanded answers about the Disobedience Award. As of now, I’ve received no response. If there is no accountability for the people who bolster men like Epstein, sexual violence against powerless people will continue. Several people, students and faculty alike, have reached out, asking me to remain calm and acknowledge that he apologized. In one email, a student wrote, “Still, this is at least minimally positive behavior, and I wanted some part of our collective email record to acknowledge that.” The student was concerned that my emails demanding answers would result in the ousting of Ito and said that it was unfair not to acknowledge his apology.

Why should we be okay with “minimally positive behavior”? Why are we so ready to forgive and accept an apology that does not take true responsibility for the role played in the harm of these young women? Why is there no accountability for men with power? Why should I be concerned about Ito keeping his job when he was not concerned about the people that Epstein was hurting? This is how powerful men continue to exert their power on us, by making us pity them when they are not even truly sorry for what they did.

As a self-proclaimed ethicist, Ito should step down in his role as director of the Media Lab. I am not concerned with his job when dozens of girls have been raped and taken advantage of. They will exist with a lifelong trauma because of Epstein, his comrades, and a society that chooses to ignore and forgive the men who empower him.

MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, recently released an apology for the Institution's ties to Epstein. I’m happy that the Institution acknowledges its role in the scandal. However, I find it ironic that the Institution took money that hurt these women, and their response is to throw money back. Money to non-profits is useful, but what will truly make change is a change of leadership and a strict precedent set for this to never happen again. Taking money from Epstein once is a mistake. Taking it over many years is not.

The truth is, I’m only a student. I come from Kenya. I’m a young black woman (running the risk of being called “angry” or “crazy” for speaking up). On the ladder of power, I am on a very low rung. That said, I am educated, I am smart, and I have a voice. As the Media Lab decides how to handle Ito’s involvement, I at least have the power to advocate for the girls and women who couldn’t speak out when they were raped and abused. I have the power to say no to a director who chose not only to ignore the accusations but to lie about his involvement as well. I can say that I am part of the #MeTooSTEM movement and will not be silent.

We, as a community of researchers at MIT, progressives, and inventors need to ask ourselves the question that Civic Media has been asking this year: “Who gets to invent the future?” We must set an example of leadership that is truly ethical, inclusive, equitable, and focused on creating a standard that puts human rights at the center. Always.

Proclaiming oneself to be an ethicist is meaningless without backing it up with moral actions. Ito’s actions cannot be excused simply because he is talented or because he claims to be sorry for bad judgement. The only way to make change is to enforce it and by that I mean, Joi Ito needs to go.

I don’t expect MIT to fire Ito. I understand that he is a talented man with a powerful network and important initiatives. I’m calling for my director to step down, take full responsibility, and be an example for future leadership.

Step down, Joi Ito, and do what is right by the victims whose pain you actively contributed to and invest in the future of women.

Arwa Mboya is a graduate student in the MIT Media Lab.

Update 9/1/2019: The article was updated to remove the incorrect claim that the Media Lab denied taking donations from Epstein in a 2015 public statement. In fact, the statement was refuting that Epstein donated funds to a particular project, not the Media Lab in general.