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.
* 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.
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.
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.
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.
You're still talking about Swartz as if he was part of the MIT community in some strongly meaningful sense. He was not.
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.
* 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.
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.
By contrast, defending innocent students is part of a university's job description.
“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.” 
"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." 
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 have no idea what they are smoking of late in New Jersey but the entire state government seems dysfunctional / delusional.
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.
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.
Do the right thing, MIT.
Seriously, can we not do this every time something legally interesting happens at MIT? The two situations are, as demonstrated very aptly above, unrelated.
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.
Stop making unhelpful comparisons, please.