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EFF & MIT Co-Sponsor Summit Defending the "Freedom to Innovate"

DEEPLINKS BLOG
December 22, 2015

Earlier this fall, EFF and MIT co-hosted the Freedom to Innovate Summit, bringing together student researchers from around the country to discuss threats to research and how universities can better support students. Video from several sessions recently became available online.

The Summit featured several noteworthy speakers, including students who had been forced to confront overzealous law enforcement authorities and prosecutors. One whose story gripped participants was former MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science student Star Simpson.

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Star spoke about growing up in Hawaii, and “learning by doing, participating in projects” before coming to study at MIT. She explained, “My parents are both artists, and they ran a humble two-person jewelry business when I was growing up, so no part of my coming [to MIT in 2006] was taken as a given.”

One of the areas of research that captivated Star was wearable technology. She said:

My graduate student advisor…and I paired up to build what at the time was pretty cutting edge…a wearable garment that would sense your posture, taking advantage of the newly low-cost accelerometers and micro-controllers that then-new smart phones were driving….We were building something that no one else in the world had at the time.

A year after coming to MIT, just two months after beginning her sophomore year, Star was nearly killed by state authorities when visiting Boston Logan airport to meet a visiting friend while wearing a light-up t-shirt mistaken for—and presumed to be—an explosive device.

Star addressed the public safety paranoia that drove her to be vilified in public despite having done nothing wrong. She also discussed her university’s rush to judgment and the abandonment she felt from her academic community. After the summit, she wrote:

I am speaking up now because I don’t think I’m the last person from MIT who will create something new and technological which is misunderstood or seen the wrong way by the police, by authoritarians gripped by the “anti-terrorist” fervor that seems largely to turn non-white people into targets, by the MIT administration, by prosecutors, by the courts, by large corporations, by the public or the press.

Star went on to praise the recent creation of a free legal clinic for student innovators advised by Boston University professors, while also suggesting further policy changes that MIT could make “to value the culture that its name stands for.”

Later in the day, a panel of legal experts explored the legal landscape confronting student innovators. EFF’s Kit Walsh joined Andy Sellars from the Berkman Center and Shannon Erwin from the Muslim Justice League to address a range of laws threatening innovation and describe some of EFF’s campaigns to defend it.

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Among other things, Kit discussed the history of battles to establish First Amendment recognition for code as constitutionally protected speech, as well as a summary of controversial intellectual property doctrines. She also explained how fair use protects reverse engineering, and explored how the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has been used by prosecutors to prey on innovators, including the late Aaron Swartz. Finally, Kit discussed EFF’s Offline project, aiming to build “support for imprisoned technologists around the world,” describing it as a “non-legal support mechanism” through which “we can all help one another” despite the challenges presented by “unjust laws that are applied to researchers.”

Andy focused on medical devices. He discussed a lack of transparency in some diagnostic monitoring devices: they provide only intermittent feedback to patents despite continually monitoring their condition. His presentation helped illuminate how a right to tinker enables a right to audit, and why those rights may rise to existential significance for some people who depend on medical technology.

Shannon discussed the Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project case decided by the Supreme Court in 2010 and its implications for First Amendment rights. In particular, she described how laws prohibiting material support for terrorism were used against a defendant whose only manner of “support” was to conduct workshops aiming to de-escalate violence and provide tools for non-violent conflict resolution. She explained that in her community, "many parents want their kids not to use social media at all, because they're terrified that they will be at risk of prosecution."

Videos of other summit sessions are collected on YouTube and in the Internet Archive, including introductory comments by MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito, comments about the evolution of DRM by Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, and much more. Drew Wilson, a Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellow at Free Press, also published podcasts from the summit, as well as a transcript of an interview with EFF’s Cory Doctorow.

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