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Letter to MIT community regarding support of students behind ‘Tidbit’ (mit.edu)
144 points by chaz on Feb 16, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

Basically an opposite response to the one they provided in the Aaron Swartz case.

Sure, there are big differences between the two cases (among them, the fact that Swartz was not himself a student at MIT, and the fact that the Tidbit team faces not prosecution but a subpoena--albeit a subpoena that presages prosecution). Nevertheless, the narratives are strikingly similar: boundary-pushing, widely-respected hackers confront aggressive and ambitious prosecutors, where the right kind of support from the school can make all the difference in the world.

Is MIT being hypocritical here, or did they learn something from the Aaron Swartz tragedy? Or maybe the differences between the the cases are actually what is significant.

Oh boy, where to start?

* Swartz did not create something novel. Tidbits did.

* Swartz was not an MIT student. Tidbits authors were.

* Swartz violated policies/rules of a couple non-profits (MIT and JSTOR). Tidbits did not.

* Swartz misused MIT computer resources. Tidbits did not.

* Jurisdiction in Swartz' case made sense. It doesn't make sense in the Tidbits situation.

* Swartz' case was a federal incident. Tidbits incident is (currently) a state of NJ matter.

* Swartz was charged by the feds. Tidbits has not (yet) been charged by anyone.

Whatever opinion you hold about Swartz' case, I think you should understand that it's not very similar to this one, outside of the fact that MIT is involved in both.

I don't think you even read half my comment. If you had, you would have seen that I already pointed out that there are big differences between the two cases, and that I noted two of the more significant differences, both of which you repeat in your list. Furthermore, the last sentence of my comment already recognizes that the difference in response may be attributable to differences between the cases, rather than other factors. So what are you criticizing?

Nevertheless, I do think that the idea that these cases are completely unrelated is off the mark. The most significant PR challenge that Reif has faced in his tenure has been the Aaron Swartz case, and his response to that case has been roundly criticized in the national press (albeit most vociferously by people close to Aaron).

Regardless of what you think of MIT's response in Aaron Swartz's case, you must recognize Reif would be remiss not to recognize the parallels between the two cases: parallels between the narratives, parallels in how MIT community members (and the hacker community generally) have reacted to the narratives, parallels in how the press will likely report on both cases. From a PR perspective, this story can easily become a continuation of the Aaron Swartz affair, if MIT is not careful.

This letter may not be a cynically calculated PR response meant to deflect the kind of criticism MIT suffered after the Aaron Swartz tragedy, but it can nonetheless be assessed in relation to MIT's response to Aaron's arrest. At minimum, this letter is a recognition that a university can insert itself between prosecutors and students, and stand up for its community principals when they are under assault.

Supporters of Aaron Swartz have been looking for precisely that from MIT for quite some time.

Is MIT being hypocritical? Clearly not since what they are saying and and what they are doing in this case do not appear to be at odds with each other. It would by hypocritical if they, for example, both supported the students verbally, but at the same time encouraged the prosecution in some way.

I think you meant to suggest they were being inconsistent here. Or perhaps suggesting they were applying a double standard. If the former then (given the poor way they handled the Swartz affair) that is to be welcomed. If the latter then I suspect there are enough differences to suggest that a different approach is indeed warranted.

You go on to suggest that the different reaction to this case on the part of MIT is perhaps a cynical PR exercise while at the same time berating them for the poor handling of the Swartz event. Is it not perhaps an alternative that they have taken the public reaction to heart and have changed in their outlook? Indeed, now that they take a more positive reaction you criticize them for changing.

While their treatment of Swartz was appalling, that's no reason to insist they behave like that in all cases - and less reason for complaining when they improve.

Perhaps you are right that "hypocritical" was not the best choice of words.

If it was not clear, I did intend to reject the idea that this was nothing more than a cynical PR move (although it is clearly good PR). I agree with you that it appears that they have taken the public reaction to heart and have changed in their outlook, as you put it.

Nonetheless, I think all of these questions bear exploring (including the question as to whether this letter is in some manner cynical PR). An institution like MIT should be questioned skeptically, even (or perhaps especially) when it is attempting to reform itself and its practices.

it can nonetheless be assessed in relation to MIT's response to Aaron's arrest. At minimum, this letter is a recognition that a university can insert itself between prosecutors and students

You're still talking about Swartz as if he was part of the MIT community in some strongly meaningful sense. He was not.

To say that Aaron was not part of the MIT community is disingenuous at best. Perhaps your username gives you away.

MIT has a technical definition of "MIT Community," which I believe includes students, faculty, staff, and affiliates (not alumni, I believe). There is of course the more day-to-day meaning of community, but there are specific policies that apply to members of the MIT Community that don't apply elsewhere.

Well, that could be true.

But it's not. Check MIT's own definition, at the first Google hit for "MIT Community" and the shockingly predictable URL HTTP://web.mit.edu/community :

MIT's diverse community — comprising students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and more — work together on more than research and education. Outside of the classroom, student clubs, staff organizations and religious life groups are just some of the ways community comes together at the Institute.

Overly minced words turn to mush.

Was Aaron a student at MIT?

I admit to having some bias, but your bullet-points are unsound. To each in turn:

* Swartz was in the process of creating something novel for which public data sets with a fair market value of zero dollars "housed" in JSTOR was required.

* Admission status is irrelevant. MIT is and always has been an open campus.

* Very true. You and the authors of Tidbits and most likely every reader of this comment located in the US also violated several policies / rules of their state, local, federal governments just by waking up this morning, taking a shower, and cooking breakfast. If you are involved in a creative endeavor of any significance you will find it almost necessary to bend/break rules of institutions that will in turn benefit from that very creativity.

* Very true. You are currently also violating the EULA of several software applications misusing your own computer resources.

* Debatable. The Computer Fraud Abuse Act under which he was charged covers only "protected computers" namely those owned by US Govt, banks/financial institutions, or those engaged in "interstate commerce." Power-hungry and technologically illiterate authorities have rendered basically every computer hooked to a network including smartphones as "protected computers" engaged in commerce.

* Partially true. Swartz was arraigned in Cambridge District Court charged with violations of state law of breaking and entering. Charges were dropped.

* So you are saying if New Jersey charged the authors of Tidbits with a spurious charge it would be ok for MIT to not support them? I find the abuse of the subpoena power by New Jersey and the abuse of prosecutorial discretion in both cases to be poison fruits of the same tree.

By the way, the common-sense amendments to CFAA, HR 2454 & S. 1196 need your support if they are ever going to make it out of committee.

http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d113:s.1196:/ http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d113:h.r.2454:/

I think your all points are fairly taken, except,

* Swartz did not create something novel. Tidbits did.

Ha, what?! RSS, Creative Commons, Reddit, Demand Progress, for starters.

Edit: Okay, a few people have pointed out the context of legal action being pursued against against individuals. I suppose I'm being reactionary, so I withdraw my point.

Aaron was involved with a lot of cool stuff, but his case had nothing to do with anything you've mentioned.

beering is clearly speaking within the context of the Swartz's legal troubles. Within that context, beering's comments are valid.

From the perspective of MIT, Swartz broke the law and he wasn't an MIT student. If I had to guess, the way everything developed after that is probably rather befuddling to them. MIT does not have as much control over the DOJ, or the mental health of non-students, as you think they do.

By contrast, defending innocent students is part of a university's job description.

There is some evidence that MIT was not passive in the Aaron Swartz case, but took active steps to encourage or facilitate the prosecution:

“The report...makes very clear that MIT was actually not neutral,” Robert Swartz said. “MIT called in the police and then violated the law by providing the government with information and material from Aaron’s computer without a court order. Then they lied to me about those facts.” [0]

"When it came to the most fundamental question in the case—was Aaron authorized to access MIT’s network or not?—MIT maintains that the feds simply never asked. And MIT never spoke up. ... Bob maintains that in Aaron’s case, MIT’s 'neutrality' was in fact an abdication. By its silence, Bob says, the administration betrayed its mission." [1]

And please don't presume to tell me what I think.

[0] http://business.time.com/2013/07/31/aaron-swartzs-father-bla...

[1] http://boingboing.net/2014/01/03/aaron-swartzs-father-bob-sw...

And please don't presume to tell me what I think.

It's normal, in human communication, to try to draw inferences by what you say and how it is said. It's really tedious to try to communicate in any other fashion.

It very strongly looks like you are in the "MIT helped to kill Swartz" camp, and your follow-up post, despite its righteous indignance, just seems to be more of that point of view.

What I meant was, I do not hold the viewpoint you attribute to me. Your inferences are wrong.

There is some evidence that MIT was not passive in the Aaron Swartz case, but took active steps to encourage or facilitate the prosecution

Sadly, he wasn't a student, staff, or employee of MIT. You seem to be missing this crucial point. Had he been, I have little doubt his situation would have been handled very differently - from how they reported Aaron's actions to how they did not fight for a particular outcome.

In my original post I noted "the fact that Swartz was not himself a student at MIT" as a key difference between the cases. I also wrote "maybe the differences between the the cases are actually what is significant [in explaining the difference in response between the cases]". How am I missing this point?

I definitely agree that his situation would have been handled differently had he been directly affiliated with the university.

The point I am making with the above post is that MIT was not entirely passive in Aaron's prosecution, in response to what cynicalkane wrote about MIT having "control" over the DOJ. MIT didn't need to "control" the DOJ in order to have influence over the course of their investigation and the prosecution. In fact, MIT's own internal report, which Aaron's father is citing in the quotes above, admits as much. This shouldn't be controversial.

You wrote a massive comment leaning into a position and then tacked on the end a potential "or maybe it is this benign thing, and not my accusation". You should not be surprised when people then react to what you said with "you are leaning in the wrong direction and here are all the reasons why that benign thing is probably the case".

Star was a student, and from what I remember MIT dropped her under the bus as soon as the airpord LED IED case showed up

Yeah, but she was a giiirl, and therefore couldn't have been a true hacker, so she must have been a terrorist.


Susan Hockfield and her administration were terrible, and the reason I haven't donated to MIT for a long time. Aaron was but one example in a long string: Star Simpson, the mbta card hack, the faculty club hackers, etc. They were very unsupportive of students in general.

I respect Rafael immensely from when I knew him as a student, and really hoped he could turn it around. He clearly has.

It isn't hypocrisy. It's a new regime.

I'll be donating this year for the first time since graduation.

I suspected from the very beginning she'd make a very bad President because as far as I could and can tell she had absolutely no connection to or experience with MIT prior to accepting that post. It's a rather special place that an outsider like her, who started at the very top, would never get a feel for.

Yes, I really have no idea WTF MIT was doing to itself between Vest and now. Aside from cogen (which started before her time), every other decision she made was horrible.

Well, the NJ Attorney General is probably a less imposing opponent than the DOJ. But I agree.

MIT has a new President at the time of this writing vs. the Swartz case. Could be a key driver.

MIT failed Aaron Swartz. We'll see what they do this time.

This wasn't done in a vacuum. There was a petition circulating to get this done prior to the announcement:


MIT took the opportunity to reconsider it's policies and ethics after Aaron Swartz (ie. http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2014/mit-follows-up-on-questio...) This is the first test of those changes after Swartz. (Though as the others point out, Swartz's case was different, it was more clear that he did something illegal)

Also I think it's very disingenuous to say that deliberately thinking about your polices and then changing them is hypocritical. This is one of the reasons politicians in Washington can't get anything done - wavering from your past views = hypocrisy. If this was true, people could never change.

> Is MIT being hypocritical here, or did they learn something from the Aaron Swartz tragedy?

Simple, MIT has zero desire to allow out-of-state prosecutors any leeway to possibly sue them. So, they will fight this because the precedent might cost MIT big bucks later if they lose.

If like me you haven't heard of this story here is some more background: http://tech.mit.edu/V134/N4/abelson.html . Still looking for some project information I will update the post when I find it.

EDIT: eff post: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2014/02/eff-challenges-new-jer...

EDIT: hackathon page: http://nodeknockout.com/teams/shoop-team

EDIT: Looks like they have taken down a lot of the posts linked from nodeknockout.com

Such a weird case. Tidbit doesnt even do anything interesting, it is a demo of a clone of an existing piece of software (used to steal CPU cycles from victims, which is why NJ is interested).

NJ is I guess confusing cause and effect, and suspects these MIT 'geniuses' of supplying thr 'prohibitively complex' code to the known criminals and then trying to use that same code to win honors at a hackathon?

I'm trying to understand what actual laws the students could possibly have broken.

> Then, in December, Rubin was contacted by the New Jersey attorney general’s office, which asked for, among other things, a list of all websites “affected by the Bitcoin code,” copies of “all contracts and/or agreements” with customers, “[a]ll documents and correspondence concerning all breaches and/or unauthorized access to computers by you,” and “[a]ll codes, source codes, control logs, and installation logs concerning the Bitcoin code.”

This is the US we are talking about here, there has to be SOME law which they have broken. Considering everyone breaks the law every day without realising it.

Breaking a New Jersey law when your only connection with it was attending the funeral of a grandmother some time ago is a bit more difficult....

Was the hack-a-thon in NJ? I'm still trying to figure out how they're involved in any of this...

They have no jurisdiction whatsoever. Students with help of EFF have rightly directed the State of New Jersey to the nearest cliff from which to jump.


I have no idea what they are smoking of late in New Jersey but the entire state government seems dysfunctional / delusional.

Oh man, I love good GFY legal documents.

Sometimes, they're the only appropriate response. This is one of those times.

It was not. Nor are the authors from NJ or have any ties to the state. Yeah, it's pretty confusing.

I was so embarrassed at the time of Aaron Swartz that the MIT that had been so good to me, was doing so much evil. They allowed a culture of bureaucracy and rules to dominate the values of innovation and principles.

I am pleased that under Reif real changes have been made that seem to be seeing the light with cases like Tidbit. No doubt this was part PR exercise. But behind every PR campaign is also a public affirmation to stake a new path.

Let's hope MIT can continue to return to its roots and set a great example to the tech community.

It just points out that our Federal computer law is somewhat imprecise and runs counter to the mission of appropriate computer usage.

Okay, I am somewhat older..if I was under the same computer laws today my actions in Purdue computer labs during the early 1990s would place me in the prosecutor cross hairs.

In other news, the widely-considered-independent country of Joldova, which lies partly in Asia, partly in Europe, recently announced that the Tidbits code, which may or may not be deployed yet, and may possibly infringe on Joldovian patents, may or may not potentially affect some or no websites that may or may not be located east or west of the main highway. They are therefore preparing an International Court of Justice (or INTERPOL) requisition, which may or not be issued on paper or made available openly, via P2P file-sharing sites, and possibly copyrighted.

MIT failed to support Aaron Swartz, with very dire consequences.

Do the right thing, MIT.

Do the right thing, MIT, or we'll kill ourselves!

Seriously, can we not do this every time something legally interesting happens at MIT? The two situations are, as demonstrated very aptly above, unrelated.

"Do the right thing, MIT, or we'll kill ourselves?"

I'm surprised you have the audacity to simplify what happened to Aaron Schwartz to a contrived ultimatum. And it is wholly related, given that Aaron was a member of the MIT community.

Except he wasn't a member of the MIT community. He was a Fellow at Harvard University Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, but not a student or faculty member at MIT.

However, as the report notes, Swartz had connections to the Institute: "He was a regular visitor to the MIT campus and interacted with MIT people and groups both on campus and off. … He was a member of MIT's Free Culture Group, a regular visitor at MIT's Student Information Processing Board (SIPB), and an active participant in the annual MIT International Puzzle Mystery Hunt Competition. Aaron Swartz's father, Robert Swartz, was (and is) a consultant at the MIT Media Lab. Aaron frequently visited his father there, and his two younger brothers had been Media Lab interns."

Aside from Aaron's cass, that information is an interesting bit of nepotism regarding MIT Media Lab and the Schwartz children.

Aaron didn't fall under the MIT support umbrella. These folks do.

Stop making unhelpful comparisons, please.

we're all best buddies now, please unlearn the Aaron Swartz matter

regards, the staph

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