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February 19, 2014, 04:09:11 PM
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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’s update described incremental steps but no significant policy decisions. The university said it will create a standing presidential committee to develop an online data privacy policy. Swartz’s supporters have criticized the college’s decision to hand over electronic records to police without subpoenas or warrants.

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.”

18 February 2014

Tidbit Inventors Attacked by New Jersey

From: dan[at]geer.org
To: cypherpunks[at]cpunks.org
Subject: re: bitcoin
Date: Tue, 18 Feb 2014 16:45:08 -0500

Yesterday's letter to alumni from MIT President Reif

________________________________________________________________

Dear MIT Alumni,

This evening, I sent the following message to the campus MIT community. Because I know that you care very much about the welfare of our students, I thought you might be interested to see it, too.

Sincerely,

L. Rafael Reif

__________________________________________________________________

To the members of the MIT community:

I am writing to address a problem that a group of MIT students currently face but that concerns all of us, because it highlights issues central to sustaining the creative culture of MIT.

The students in question are the creators of Tidbit, a proof-of-concept code for a novel Bitcoin-harvesting strategy. After Tidbit won the "most innovative" award in a recent hackathon, the State Attorney General of New Jersey demanded that the students turn over a sweeping set of documents, code and information--a surprising and difficult turn of events for the Tidbit team.

I am grateful to all those who have written to me to express their concern about this situation, and I want to make it clear that the students who created Tidbit have the full and enthusiastic support of MIT. Chancellor Cindy Barnhart and Provost Marty Schmidt met with the students yesterday. They and General Counsel Greg Morgan also spoke with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which is providing to the students, pro bono, the independent legal representation that they need. We will remain in close coordination with the students and the EFF to offer assistance in the legal proceedings.

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. I have asked the Provost, Chancellor and General Counsel to develop and submit to me a specific proposal for creating such a resource, which will add an essential new strength to MIT's innovation ecosystem.

When the MIT community works together, we spot problems, analyze them and solve them. Let's solve this one together.

Sincerely,

L. Rafael Reif

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February 19, 2014, 04:11:39 PM
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As a university student intending on publishing a cryptocurrency related research project, articles like this worry me dearly.  Why do so many in the world think cryptocurrency is a crime?

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February 20, 2014, 02:06:48 AM
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As a university student intending on publishing a cryptocurrency related research project, articles like this worry me dearly.  Why do so many in the world think cryptocurrency is a crime?
Because some are using it to do crimes. That give gov'ts excuse to go after anyone who use it.
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February 20, 2014, 04:48:06 AM
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The executive branch uses that as an excuse to infringe upon all civil rights, and decent courts slap the government down.

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