In Aaron Swartz case, MIT finds it did no wrong but failed to lead

A report on the institute's role in the prosecution of the Internet activist, who committed suicide while facing federal charges over a hack at MIT, laments the school's "neutral" approach.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Ed is a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world who enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
3 min read
Aaron Swartz Jacob Appelbaum

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology released on Tuesday a report on its role in the prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, concluding that it maintained a neutral stance and did no wrong, but suggesting that its approach was not the right one for any institution that hoped to be "a tough leader or a moral leader."

The nearly 200-page report was a response to outrage over MIT's role in the prosecution of Swartz, the freedom-of-information activist who committed suicide while facing federal felony charges for downloading more than 4 million academic journal papers from the JSTOR database at the institute.

In a letter announcing the report to the school's community, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said the inquiry had debunked some popular misconceptions about the institute's actions during Swartz's prosecution.

"The report ... sets the record straight by dispelling widely circulated myths," Reif wrote. "For example, it makes clear that MIT did not 'target' Aaron Swartz, we did not seek federal prosecution, punishment, or jail time, and we did not oppose a plea bargain."

The report says MIT "adopted a position of remaining neutral, with limited involvement" and that its decision not to issue a statement during the case or advocate publicly on Swartz's behalf was the result of talks with an attorney that suggested such actions wouldn't help -- and might even harm -- Swartz's legal efforts. Swartz's family and two MIT faculty members had requested that the institute issue a statement.

However, the report says, MIT failed to consider Swartz's reputation in the realm of digital technology and open access. And it also didn't consider that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law under which Swartz was charged, "is a poorly drafted and questionable criminal law as applied to modern computing, one that affects the Internet community as a whole and is widely criticized; and that the United States government was pursuing an overtly aggressive prosecution."

The report concludes by seriously questioning the institute's hands-off approach.

"If the Review Panel is forced to highlight just one issue for reflection," the report reads, "we would choose to look to the MIT administration's maintenance of a 'neutral' hands-off attitude that regarded the prosecution as a legal dispute to which it was not a party." And it continues:

As a case study, this is a textbook example of the very controversies where the world seeks MIT's insight and leadership. ... A friend of Aaron Swartz stressed in one of our interviews that MIT will continue to be at the cutting edge in information technology and, in today's world, challenges like those presented in Aaron Swartz's case will arise again and again. With that realization, "Neutrality on these cases is an incoherent stance. It's not the right choice for a tough leader or a moral leader."

A PDF of the full report is available here. Reif's letter announcing it (PDF) is here. And newly released documents pertaining to the case (PDF) are here.

You also can check out MIT's news story and an FAQ here and here, respectively.

Update, 12:10 p.m. PT: Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz's partner at the time of his death, has issued a statement on the MIT report, calling it a "whitewash." We have an e-mail out to MIT for a response and will update this post when we have more information. Here's Stinebrickner-Kauffman's statement:

MIT's behavior throughout the case was reprehensible, and this report is quite frankly a whitewash.

Here are the facts: This report claims that MIT was "neutral" -- but MIT's lawyers gave prosecutors total access to witnesses and evidence, while refusing access to Aaron's lawyers to the exact same witnesses and evidence. That's not neutral. The fact is that all MIT had to do was say publicly, "We don't want this prosecution to go forward" -- and Steve Heymann and Carmen Ortiz would have had no case. We have an institution to contrast MIT with - JSTOR, who came out immediately and publicly against the prosecution. Aaron would be alive today if MIT had acted as JSTOR did. MIT had a moral imperative to do so.

And even now, MIT is still stonewalling. Wired reporter Kevin Poulsen FOIA'd the Secret Service's files on Aaron's case, and judge ordered them to be released. The only reason they haven't been is because MIT has filed an objection. If MIT is at all serious about implementing any reforms to stop this kind of tragedy from happening again, it must stop objecting to the release of information about the case.