Two prominent MIT figures began seeking signatures on Thursday for a letter criticizing the university for failing to support four undergraduates facing a fraud investigation in New Jersey for a project that won them an award at a programming competition. But by Thursday evening, MIT said that, in fact, it is “eager” to help the students.
The letter, addressed to MIT president Rafael Reif, said MIT’s lawyers told the students they wouldn’t get involved in a matter that didn’t directly involve the university — an echo of the tragic case of Aaron Swartz.
“Students are being threatened with legal action for doing exactly what we encourage them to do: explore and create innovative new technologies,” wrote Hal Abelson, a computer science professor; Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT; and Media Lab graduate student Nathan Matias. If the four students suffer legal repercussions, “and if MIT declines to support them, how can we ever responsibly continue to advise our students to disseminate their work in public?”
The letter portrayed the project, which is called Tidbit and involves technology to “mine” a virtual currency, as an innovative and harmless prototype.
MIT provost Martin A. Schmidt said Thursday evening that there had been a misunderstanding. MIT advised the students to get their own lawyer who would be solely focused on their best interest, he said.
“It was never our intent to say we can’t support you,” he said in an interview. “Now that they have that counsel, the Institute stands by its students and we are prepared to support them and their counsel in whatever way we can to help them in this defense.”
The call for signatures, e-mailed to colleagues Thursday, came the same day MIT released an update on its efforts to improve campus policies in the wake of Swartz’s death. The 26-year-old Internet activist committed suicide in January 2013 while facing federal felony charges for downloading millions of journal articles using the MIT network.
Critics, including some MIT students and professors, have said that the university should have intervened with prosecutors to try to help Swartz avoid jail for an act of civil disobedience that was likely aimed at making the journal articles available for free.
MIT is also looking at ways to better promote open access to scholarly work. Finally, MIT is considering whether to act on several other questions raised last year by an investigation, headed by Abelson, into MIT’s handling of the Swartz case.
MIT has not yet addressed such issues as whether the college should develop cybercrimes expertise so it doesn’t have to call outside authorities for help investigating a possible technology crime, when it may prefer to handle a matter involving students internally.
Abelson said Thursday that he was surprised that issue has yet to draw a response from MIT’s leadership, but believes MIT will make a number of changes.
“I do sincerely, deeply, deeply believe that Rafael Reif cares about this,” he said. But he added, “If I’m grading this as a faculty member, the MIT grade is incomplete.”
Swartz’s father, Bob Swartz, said he had hoped to see quicker progress, yet remains hopeful MIT will learn from what happened to his son. But Swartz said he was disturbed by the letter’s depiction of MIT as having initially refused to help the four students behind Tidbit.
“Despite people at MIT saying these kinds of things wouldn’t happen again, the general counsel’s office initially acted exactly the same way that it did previously,” he said. “It would appear the general counsel’s office hadn’t learned any lessons from what happened to Aaron.”
Nineteen-year-old Tidbit developer Jeremy Rubin and three fellow MIT undergraduates participated in an online “hackathon” in November, in which they designed a program that involved bitcoins, an electronic currency that can be generated by computers running complicated and resource-intensive programs.
Their invention would allow a Web user to avoid having to see display ads on a website; in exchange, the user would loan computing power to the website’s owner to mine for bitcoins, according to the students’ attorney, Hanni Fakhoury of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Although the startup wasn’t yet capable of actually mining bitcoins, according to the protest letter, it attracted the attention of New Jersey authorities, who issued a subpoena to Rubin for source code and other documents. According to a letter from the attorney general’s office, they are investigating whether Tidbit violated New Jersey’s consumer fraud act.
Fakhoury speculated that New Jersey authorities thought Tidbit’s creators might be trying to essentially steal computing power from users, akin to a gambling company that he said settled with the state for such a scheme. But he said the students intended to get permission from all its users.
Fakhoury is fighting the subpoena, which does not name the other three students. The hackathon website identified them as Oliver Song, Carolyn Zhang, and a third young man who did not list his full name.
New Jersey authorities could not be reached, and Rubin declined to comment.
Abelson declined to comment on MIT’s stance toward the students. But he said he helped write the letter “because we think this is directly MIT’s business.”
“If MIT students can be subpoenaed for the kind of project we encourage and applaud, and created absolutely no harm,” he continued, “that in itself has a chilling effect on MIT’s ability to carry out its mission of research and education.”