The long-awaited MIT review of its processes and procedures up to and after Aaron Swartz’s suicide is out.
The 180-page report spearheaded by MIT Professor Hal Abelson was authorized by MIT president Rafael Reif in January. An initial glance shows that the report found no wrongdoing on the part of the University or its employees. On a conference call, Abelson said the report is not edited and that MIT officials had no advance knowledge of the report nor did MIT target Swartz.
Swartz, the 26-year-old co-founder of Reddit, committed suicide in New York City in January. He was the subject of 13 felony charges for having downloaded too many documents from MIT JSTOR library . His camp characterized those charges as a prime example of prosecutorial overreach and U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz was widely criticized for going after a flea with a bazooka.
The report seeks to distance MIT itself from the prosecution. The school called in Cambridge police when it found out about the massive downloads and did not know Swartz was involved. Moreover, the school did not ask that federal charges be brought, and was not consulted about appropriate charges. Nor was MIT involved in plea negotiations and adopted a “position of neutrality” over the case=, refusing to issue public statements.
However, according to the report: MIT
did not consider factors including “that the defendant was an accomplished and well-known contributor to Internet technology”; that the law under which he was charged “is a poorly drafted and questionable criminal law as applied to modern computing”; and that “the United States was pursuing an overtly aggressive prosecution.” While MIT’s position “may have been prudent,” the report says, “it did not duly take into account the wider background” of policy issues “in which MIT people have traditionally been passionate leaders.”
Update: Harvard law professor Laurence Lessig zeroed in on one key part of the report, which was that MIT never characterized Aaron’s access as “unauthorized. “They indicated that his machine was not supposed to be plugged into the ethernet jack it was plugged into, but there is no law against abusing an ethernet jack,” he wrote.
If indeed Aaron’s access was not “unauthorized” — as Aaron’s team said from the start, and now MIT seems to acknowledge — then the tragedy of this prosecution has only increased.
At a memorial ceremony at MIT’s Media Lab in March, Swartz’s father and partner both took MIT to task for failing to use common sense in this prosecution and for withholding information from Swartz’s lawyers in this case. They also urged MIT to release un-redacted documents related to the case, while MIT had maintained it needed to edit out people’s names.
Update: Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz’s partner, called the report a whitewash. Via email, she said:
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.
This report was updated several times July 30 to add Lessig’s and Stinebrickner-Kauffman’s comments.