Tainted Pasts

More on the MIT Mess; NYC's Tech Gap; Public Venmo? and much more.


This is civic tech: Our Andrew Rasiej and Jessica Quinn have an op-ed titled “Big Tech has a diversity problem” in Crain’s New York Business today on why the news that Big Tech companies are expanding their operations here needs to be accompanied by a more comprehensive and strategically inclusive approach to tech workforce development. “We need more public infrastructure supporting continuous learning and reskilling, effectively bridging hiring gaps and weaning Big Tech off its preference for Ivy League grads over CUNY grads,” they write.
 
Five leaders in the govtech arena talk to Ben Miller of GovTech.com on how the field has evolved (and not evolved as expected) in the last five years.
 
New York lawmakers are proposing to create a “public Venmo” payment system to help the unbanked and stimulate local economic growth, Jordana Rosenfeld reports for Motherboard.
 
Zack Quaintance reports for GovTech.com on how the Better Reykavik civic deliberation platform is starting to be used by government entities in the US.
 
Apply: The last day to submit proposals for The Impacts of Civic Tech (TICTeC) 2020 conference is this Friday.
 
Attend: BetaNYC and NYC Media Lab, among others, are helping organize #CreativesfortheCount, a create-a-thon aimed at figuring out strategies to improve the 2020 census count of children, Wednesday, January 22nd at the NYC Media Lab.
 
Attend: Demos and New America are presenting the launch of Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in An Era of Crisis, a new book by Sabeel Rahman and Hollie Russon Gilman, here at Civic Hall, Thursday, January 23rd at 6pm.
 
Subscribe: Longtime tech-democracy watcher Alex Howard is launching a text-based alert service called Subtext. [Correction: Subtext is the service Howard is using; the name of his alerts is “Making Sense of the Zeitgeist.” More info here.]  
The MIT mess, continued: Late on Friday afternoon, the traditional time for bad-news news dumps, MIT posted the report of a fact-finding effort into its ties to deceased child sex predator Jeffrey Epstein done by its law firm Goodwin-Proctor. Among the report’s revelations:

  • MIT Physics Professor Seth Lloyd received a personal gift from Epstein of $60,000 that he never reported to the university, and he also received two donations totaling $100,000 from Epstein for his university work without telling the university that Epstein was the donor. Lloyd was introduced to Epstein by his book agent, John Brockman, at an Edge “billionaires’ dinner” in 2004, and visited Epstein while he was serving his prison term. Lloyd has now been placed on leave by MIT. (Students at MIT have been demanding his dismissal for several months.)
  • Starting in 2013, three top members of MIT’s senior team knew of and approved of Epstein’s donations, knowing that he was a convicted sex offender, and having considered the “reputational risk” involved. They also decided to make his donations anonymous, an initiative that the report found has never been taken on behalf of any other donor. Though Epstein’s donations to MIT only amounted to $850,000, the report makes clear that MIT officials were hoping he might give much more, and that anything below $5 million would not need to be acknowledged publicly.
  • MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito was introduced to Epstein at the 2013 TED conference by a common friend, Linda Stone (the inventor of the phrase “continuous partial attention”—maybe she should have been paying more attention). Though Epstein was barred from attending TED because of his record as a registered sex offender, that didn’t prevent him from hanging out in the hallways where the meeting apparently took place.
  • Ito told the investigators that he then performed “due diligence” on Epstein, performing a Google search of Epstein and speaking to various individuals about him. “According to Ito, the ‘influential’ people with whom he spoke included Nicholas Negroponte, Media Lab co-founder…members of the Media Lab Advisory Council; tech billionaires, including a former LinkedIn senior executive and co-founder; and a well-known Harvard Law School professor. Ito also met other influential individuals at meetings with Epstein, including Woody Allen, a senior executive at the Hyatt Corporation, and a former prime minister of Israel. Ito explained that these meetings and discussions influenced his view of Epstein.”
  • A staffer working for Ito flagged Epstein’s Wikipedia entry at this time for Ito’s attention, but Ito apparently shrugged it off, writing Negroponte, “He has a tainted past, but Linda Stone assures me he’s awesome.” Negroponte, replied saying that Marvin Minsky, the lab’s founder, had “even visited him in jail,” and added “I would take Berlusconi’s money, so why not Jeff’s.” A few weeks later, Ito asked Stone again about Epstein, noting that “people in my office are weirded out as you can imagine.” She replied, “[h]e’s given a tremendous amount of money to Harvard” and “other scientists. Good to show that list.” Stone further advised Ito to “[f]ocus on his funding of Harvard, scientists, over many years” and noted that he “aggressively funds science & tech & interesting people.” To date, Harvard has not conducted any fresh accounting of the donations it received from Epstein.
  • Participants in Epstein’s visits to MIT between 2013 and 2017 included tech luminaries Reid Hoffman, Danny Hillis and Megan Smith, the latter who happened to be coincidentally at the university and who led an impromptu conversation with Epstein about her research into gender bias in the tech industry. I kid you not.
  • At one point, Ito considered the possibility of having Epstein visit MIT along with film director Woody Allen, then in the news for allegations about child sex abuse, and “Ito then emailed Epstein to relay the concern, commenting that “[s]ince you two were just in the news recently, I wonder if that might be bad.”
  • Epstein funded two of Ito’s personal ventures:  $250,000 in a company that was formed to commercialize technology developed at MIT, and $1 million into a $9 million private investment fund that Ito manages. Ito says he is attempting to “eject” Epstein’s money from these ventures.
  • After the Miami Herald’s explosive 2018 investigation into Epstein’s plea deal, Ito emailed friends and family saying he had cut off ties with Epstein, but the report notes that he continued to cultivate the financier into 2019. The 2018 MIT Media Center Disobedience Award had been awarded to the founders of the #MeToo movement, a fact that a junior staffer noted in complaining about the ongoing relationship.

Related: Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig is suing the New York Times, saying it defamed him for a headline that said he was “doubling down” on his defense of his longtime friend Joi Ito when he tried to explain that taking Epstein’s money anonymously was a mistake. You can re-read Lessig’s original essay on all of this here, which IMHO is written in a confusing enough way that a lot of people could have read it as saying the opposite of what Lessig says he meant (and indeed, Lessig added an addendum because of that confusion). That said, Lessig’s defense of his friend Ito is rooted in his belief that Ito only pursued Epstein because he was doing his job for an institution that required him to raise lots of money. If that was it, why did Ito let Epstein invest $1.25M into two of Ito’s personal investment vehicles?

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