Last Thursday, August 15, I heard for the first time about Joi Ito’s business relationship with Jeffrey Epstein and the ties between Epstein and the MIT Media Lab, which occurred after his appalling crimes were already known. I also learned about a deposition that names Media Lab co-founder Marvin Minsky in relation to further crimes. The same day, Ethan Zuckerman wrote me a letter informing me that Ethan is leaving the Media Lab, a decision that I unequivocally support.
As a current visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab, I have written to Joi and Ethan and informed them that I will be ending my affiliation with the Lab after this academic year. During my last two years as a visiting scholar, the Media Lab has continued to provide desk space, organizational support, and technical infrastructure to CivilServant, a project I founded to advance a safer, fairer, more understanding internet.
As part of our work, CivilServant does research on protecting women and other vulnerable people online from abuse and harassment. I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein. It’s that simple.
Although I was a student at the Lab during the time that Joi cultivated a business and funding relationship with Epstein, I was not aware of any of this. I am profoundly disappointed in the decisions that Joi made, and that the Lab somehow allowed to happen. The Media Lab has confirmed to me that none of Epstein’s money ever reached me or CivilServant, which is some small relief.
CivilServant still has remaining funds, servers, and a contractor working physically at the Media Lab, and I have asked the team to prioritize spending down those resources and moving our systems off the Media Lab’s infrastructure. I expect it will take us into the spring of 2020 to do so. While this will definitely be disruptive to our young initiative, one small mercy is that as a new faculty member at Cornell, I have a good home for this work.
Unlike me, Ethan doesn’t have a new institutional home for himself, his students, or the many meaningful projects at the Center for Civic Media. Over the coming year, I (and I hope many others) will support Ethan, his students, and staff as they make this very challenging transition. In whatever form the Center for Civic Media community takes in the future, I will be even more proud to continue my affiliation with that community after Ethan’s logical, principled, costly choice.
The MIT Media Lab is a community of creative people who helped me grow into the person I want to be in the world. I am in tears as I write this. Like Ethan, I hope that the Media Lab and the Lab community can turn this terrible situation into a chance to become a better place.