Technology & Cyberlaw Clinic: a crucial resource

Flickr/Markus Spiske

MIT students get free legal guidance and support along the path to innovation. 

By Kate Darling

In 2013, a group of MIT students won a hackathon innovation award for developing a proof of concept called Tidbit. It was a computer program that would allow users to mine for Bitcoins on a client's computer as a replacement for website advertising. The following month, the New Jersey Attorney General issued a sweeping subpoena to Tidbit and its primary creator, 19-year-old MIT student Jeremy Rubin. Faced with legal action, he had no idea where to go for help. Rubin eventually found representation and was able to settle the case through the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending civil liberties—but his situation underscored the gap in resources available to students.

Tidbit and other student ventures exemplify MIT’s proud history of hacker culture and pushing boundaries in innovation. But groundbreaking work sometimes gets entangled in a legal system that hasn’t kept up with a constantly evolving world. I see this frequently in one of my roles as intellectual property advisor to the MIT Media Lab. It was heartbreaking to witness the Tidbit case, particularly because it was just one of many examples in past years of MIT students finding themselves in legal trouble with no official way to get help from the very institute that benefits from a reputation for being bold and innovative.

In September 2016, at the urging of MIT faculty, staff, and students, and with the support of MIT Provost Martin Schmidt and Media Lab Director Joi Ito, the Technology & Cyberlaw Clinic was created as a service to help students navigate legal issues related to their innovation, and to work on legal issues surrounding cutting-edge technology. To do so, MIT joined forces with Boston University (BU) School of Law. The previous September, the Institute had partnered with BU law school to create the Entrepreneurship & Intellectual Property Clinic, which provides legal advice to startups coming out of both institutions.

Unintended consequences

With the rapid development of new technology, archaic laws can have unforeseen effects, while new laws are sometimes hastily made and difficult to interpret. A lot of the research and development done at MIT and elsewhere can become mired in copyright law, privacy law, computer fraud, abuse law, and more. 

It’s increasingly important to support our students so that they have the freedom to innovate without risking dire legal consequences.

The BU/MIT Technology & Cyberlaw Clinic works on a variety of issues including, but not limited to, intellectual property, regulatory compliance, data privacy, computer crimes, reverse engineering and anti-circumvention law, communications surveillance, media law, access to government records, drone flight and FAA compliance. That list is constantly growing in response to advances in technology. At the clinic, students can get advice on the impacts of current law on their innovation-related academic and extracurricular projects (including startups), and clinic advisors can help them respond when projects are legally threatened by third parties. The clinic also teaches classes and workshops on the MIT campus about legal issues relating to innovation and technology.

Students as advisors and clients

The clinic is a free, confidential service, staffed by BU law students and supervised by clinic director, attorney, and clinical instructor Andrew Sellars. MIT and BU graduate and undergraduate students can email the clinic anytime to set up a meeting to discuss their questions and concerns, or they can drop in during office hours at various MIT locations during the regular semester.

It's almost a year since the clinic opened, and it has been well received. The BU law student-advisors have seen a steady intake of student clients from all over MIT’s campus and have handled legal matters (beyond a first, informal consultation) for about 40 MIT students and student groups. The advisors have provided a wide variety of services, from consultation to contract drafting to public records requests. They’ve responded to “cease and desist” letters, helped students with public documents and presentations, and have even sued the CIA on behalf of an MIT student because she was being blocked from accessing documents that were necessary for her research. The clinic operates on the motto: “We are always here to help.” In situations where they cannot help directly, advisors ensure that the students are connected with qualified legal counsel.

Be prepared

I highly recommend that students contact the clinic before they encounter legal troubles. While I’m proud that the MIT Media Lab, in particular, has always been a hotbed of defiant creators and troublemakers, lawyers cannot wave a magic wand and make problems disappear. Thanks to the lawyers at the EFF, the Tidbit case was resolved, but, like many cases, it dragged on for years and took a toll on those involved. So it’s best to talk to the Technology & Cyberlaw Clinic advisors early and often. The clinic’s purpose isn’t to say “no,” but rather to help students understand their legal risks and alternatives and to enable them to make informed choices.

I’m confident that this resource will continue to be valuable to our community and will better enable our students to pursue groundbreaking work in years to come.

Kate Darling is the Media Lab’s policy advisor on intellectual property (IP) and serves on the oversight board of the law clinics she discusses in this post. She’s also a robot ethicist and a research specialist at the Lab, investigating social robotics and conducting experimental studies on human-robot interaction. 

For more information, including walk-in hours and contact info, visit the BU/MIT Technology & Cyberlaw Clinic website.

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