MIT review into Aaron Swartz's death complete in 'a few weeks'

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under fire for its role in the felony prosecution of Internet activist who downloaded academic papers, elaborates on its ongoing internal probe.

Aaron Swartz Fred Benson/Creative Commons: Flickr

An internal investigation into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's role in the felony prosecution of recently deceased tech activist Aaron Swartz should conclude "in a few weeks," the professor conducting it says.

The statement from Hal Abelson, a respected professor of electrical engineering and computer science, was published today in The Tech, MIT's student newspaper. The paper also published a letter (PDF) from MIT President Rafael Reif dated yesterday asking Abelson to review MIT's "involvement."

Swartz killed himself two years to the day after he was arrested on felony counts relating to connecting a computer to MIT's network without authorization and retrieving over 4 million academic journal articles from the JSTOR database (the Internet activist was authorized to access JSTOR because of his Harvard University affiliation but not to perform a bulk download). His criminal trial on 13 felony charges was scheduled to begin in April.

Since Swartz's death on January 11, both MIT and Carmen Ortiz , 57, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, have come under increasing criticism for their role in Swartz's prosecution. MIT's Web site has been defaced as well.

MIT called the local police on Swartz in January 2011, according to a Cambridge police report (PDF) that described his arrest. The case was then taken over by the U.S. government, with the alleged harm suffered by MIT as a centerpiece: Ortiz' criminal complaint (PDF) against Swartz alleged that "he sought to defraud MIT," "accessed protected computers belonging to MIT...without authorization," and "recklessly caused damage to MIT."

At any point in the prosecution of Swartz, MIT could have disagreed with those allegations -- which likely would have prompted Ortiz to drop charges or not insist on prison time -- but it chose not to. JSTOR, by contrast, has been saying publicly for two years that "we had no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter." Harvard professor Larry Lessig, a friend of Swartz's, wrote: "Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured 'appropriate' out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear."

Robert Swartz, Aaron's father, told The Huffington Post that he asked MIT officials on three occasions to intervene on his son's behalf by asking prosecutors to seek a lighter punishment, but they refused. "The reason I was given was there were many differing opinions in the MIT community on this topic and therefore they had to remain neutral," he said. "They put institutional concerns ahead of compassion."

Former Sen. John Sununu, an MIT and Harvard alum, wrote in The Boston Globe this week that "MIT is conducting the inevitable soul-searching internal investigation. New administrative policies and campus rules will be written in the soft tones of academic boilerplate. But a new policy handbook will not suffice. This is a crisis of values and judgment, and it requires a change in attitude, starting at the top."

An October 2012 court filing (PDF) from Swartz's lawyers argued that "MIT personnel were acting as agents of law enforcement." It also says that "MIT's problem with JSTOR could have been ended by disconnecting that computer from the MIT network. Instead, it elected to intercept communications, not to protect the MIT system, but to gather information for law enforcement purposes."

Abelson's statement says:

This matter is urgently serious for MIT. The world respects us not only for our scholarship and our science, but because we are an institution whose actions are and always have been guided by the highest ideals and the most thoughtful judgment. Our commitment to those ideals is now coming into question. At last Saturday's memorial , Aaron's partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, described his mental state: "He faced indifference from MIT, an institution that could have protected him with a single public statement and refused to do so, in defiance of all of its own most cherished principles."

I don't know -- we don't know -- if that's accurate or fair. But it demands our response. I hope this review can provide some insight into what MIT did or didn't do, and why.

The review will not be a witch-hunt or an attempt to lay blame on individuals. We don't know what we'll find as the answers unfold, but I expect to find that every person acted in accordance with MIT policy. More than that: they acted in the belief that their actions were legally and ethically proper.

MIT is soliciting questions from the public for its review at swartz-review.mit.edu.

 

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