Open Letter to President Reif Regarding Tidbit
February 17, 2014
Dear President Reif,
We are writing you as MIT faculty and graduate students whose research creates new technologies, and who teach, advise, and encourage innovative creativity among our undergraduates. We have devoted our careers to training young people to imagine, create, and disseminate projects that expand the possibilities of technology. That mission is currently under serious risk, and we believe that the MIT administration is not working to mitigate that risk.
As you might be aware, four MIT undergraduates, including EECS sophomore Jeremy Rubin, are facing legal challenges in the state of New Jersey for a project they created as part of a programming competition. Rubin and his colleagues had a novel idea: what if websites could replace ads as source of revenue, and instead borrow power from readers’ computers to mine Bitcoins, the popular new cryptocurrency? The students submitted a prototype, called Tidbit, to an international programming competition in November. Tidbit was only a non-working proof of concept and was not fully capable of mining bitcoins, but the idea was compelling enough to win a prize as the competition's most innovative project.
When Tidbit was featured for its creative innovation, it caught the attention of New Jersey’s attorney general, who subpoenaed Rubin in December for Tidbit’s source code and demanded formal responses to questions about Tidbit’s workings and motivations. The state of New Jersey recently secured a million dollar settlement from a gambling website that hijacked users’ computers and made them mine for bitcoins, and New Jersey may have been concerned that Tidbit used a similar technique.
Whatever New Jersey's thinking, this subpoena represents a serious, overly extreme response to an undergraduate project. The wording leaves open the possibility of prosecution under New Jersey's cybercrime laws, which could result in lengthy legal battles, prohibitive fines and might well destroy the nascent careers of these innovative MIT students.
When the four students approached the Office of the General Counsel upon receiving the subpoena, they were told that the OGC could not help because this was not an official Institute matter. When MIT students face legal difficulties, the Institute’s policy is to refer students to external resources, since our General Counsel's Office does not provide legal advice or representation to any MIT community members in connection with personal legal issues. One of the OGC lawyers offered to give unofficial advice and suggested that they reach out to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Harvard’s Berkman Center. The EFF is now representing the students.
We disagree with the OGC’s position. This is an Institute matter. Students are being threatened with legal action for doing exactly what we encourage them to do: explore and create innovative new technologies, consistent with our educational and research missions.
These MIT undergraduates demonstrated the kind of innovation we fully support and aspire to, both for our students and ourselves. Although the programming competition was not hosted by MIT, we routinely encourage our students to submit work to conferences, journals, and competitions run by organizations outside of MIT. Tidbit is also typical of the kind of project that students might create in response to a class assignment. Furthermore, we ourselves routinely submit our research for verification and recognition by third parties. The award for best innovation at this competition, which was not limited to undergraduates, would have been an honor for any of us.
As faculty and graduate students, we see this subpoena as an affront to our academic freedom and consider it to have a chilling effect on MIT teaching and research. Technology research advances in part because we and our students publish classwork and project ideas online. New Jersey’s subpoena challenges our ability to share our work. If New Jersey is successful with this subpoena, it could motivate other legal challenges of technology ideas that any of us describes in public. 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.
We are writing a group letter to the judge who is evaluating the New Jersey subpoena, speaking on behalf of a cross-section of MIT faculty and graduate students. In that letter, we will explain what we have said to you, expressing the affront to our academic freedom that this subpoena represents and urging the judge to drop the matter. Although we hope the judge will take our letter into consideration, it is a weak defense of our academic freedom compared to an official response by MIT.
We strongly urge you to consider Rubin v. New Jersey to be an official MIT matter. We urge that MIT should be active in trying to resolve this case. We request that MIT contact the New Jersey Attorney General and advocate that the subpoena be withdrawn. We urge you to express that Rubin and his colleagues were engaging in creative innovation that is a fundamental part of the MIT student experience, that MIT as an institution directly views this is as an affront to its academic freedom, and that MIT faculty and students are chilled by this action. Rubin's hearing is likely to be scheduled on the 3rd of March, so we urge you to act swiftly.
We appreciate your support for teaching, research, and innovation at MIT and look forward to your response.