With critics calling out another prominent academic with deep financial ties to late pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, MIT’s tech community is circling its wagons.
On a new website called “wesupportjoi.org,” roughly 100 signatories expressed their support for MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito, vouching for his “integrity” and asking him to remain in his position leading the lab in spite of his past ties to the accused sex trafficker. The statement decries how conversation around the research group has “veered into increasingly pessimistic territory,” blasting the media for “[focusing] their attention largely on this negativity.” The petition notes that the effort to back the well-loved tech figure as he’s come under fire is “grassroots” and unofficial.
Most of the petition’s signatures belong to current and former MIT Media Lab members, including researchers and academics from the broader MIT community. Prominent names on the petition include long-shot 2016 presidential candidate and Daily Beast contributor Lawrence Lessig, Whole Earth Catalog creator and tech icon Stewart Brand, managing partner of MIT Media Lab’s venture fund Habib Haddad, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, LittleBits founder and CEO Ayah Bdeir, and Harvard genetics professor George Church. Church previously apologized for his own connections to Epstein, chalking the relationship up to “nerd tunnel vision.”
The petition includes 11 supporters who signed anonymously and declined to provide their names in support of Ito.
“We are here for you, we support you, we will forever be grateful for your impact on our lives—and we look forward to many more years of debate, growth, and learning,” the petition states. “Please do not step aside.”
In an Aug.15 letter, Ito apologized for accepting funding from Epstein, who donated to the prominent research center through his connection with Ito. The pair met at a conference in 2013, and grew close enough over the years that Ito visited “several” of Epstein’s now-infamous homes. Ito also admitted that he accepted money from Epstein for personal funds which he leveraged to invest in tech startups. Prior to meeting Epstein, the Media Lab director was known for his early angel investments in companies like Flickr and Twitter.
“Regrettably, over the years, the Lab has received money through some of the foundations that he controlled,” Ito wrote in his apology letter. “I knew about these gifts and these funds were received with my permission.”
Last week, Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, announced that he would step down in light of the scandal.
“I no longer feel I can continue working on issues of social justice under the banner of the Media Lab,” Zuckerman wrote.