In Aaron Swartz case, MIT remained neutral, internal report finds
In a long-awaited public response to the death of Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in January after being charged with hacking into MIT computers and illegally downloading millions of academic journal articles, MIT officials today released an internal review of university actions, saying administrators never “targeted” the 26-year-old Internet activist and committed no wrongdoing.
The report, however, also raises concerns about university policies and whether MIT should have been more actively involved.
In a press release, university officials said the report finds that MIT never sought federal prosecution, punishment or jail time, or opposed a plea bargain with Swartz, whose suicide triggered a national debate over whether prosecutors were overzealous in pursuing charges against the computer prodigy.
“I am confident that MIT’s decisions were reasonable, appropriate, and made in good faith,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement. “I have heard from many in our community who believe our actions were proper and justified. Others feel differently, and the review panel identifies alternate paths we could have followed, including becoming more actively involved in the case as it evolved.”
At the time of his death, Swartz, who had informal connections to MIT, faced 13 federal felony charges relating to his downloading of more than 4 million academic papers from the online archive JSTOR, or about 80 percent of the JSTOR library. The downloading was carried out surreptitiously using a laptop computer that was left in a basement wiring closet in an MIT building, physically connected to the MIT computer network, according to the press release.
The report finds that throughout the two years from Swartz’s arrest in January 2011 through his suicide in January 2013, MIT “maintained a position of neutrality,” according to the press release.
The university made no public statements regarding the merits of the case against Swartz or whether it should proceed, nor did it attempt to influence the prosecutor’s decisions on the case, other than to tell the prosecutor that the government should not proceed on the assumption that MIT wanted Aaron Swartz to go to jail, according to the press release.
Swartz’s relatives have called his death “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”
In a brief post on his blog this morning, Swartz’s mentor and vocal defender, Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, said MIT’s report undermines the contentions of prosecutors, because it notes that university administrators never told prosecutors that the Swartz’s access to the files was 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,” Lessig wrote about the report. “The law regulates authorized access to a network. The whole predicate to the government’s case was that Aaron’s access to the network was ‘unauthorized,’ yet apparently in the many many months during which the government was prosecuting, they were too busy to determine whether indeed, access to the network was ‘authorized.’”
Lessig added: “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.”
Swartz’s former girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, called MIT’s report a “whitewash.”
“MIT’s behavior throughout the case was reprehensible, and this report is quite frankly a whitewash,” she wrote on her blog.
She said the report was wrong to call MIT neutral in the case against Swartz. “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,” she said. “That’s not neutral.”
She added: “The fact is that all MIT had to do was say publicly, ‘We don’t want this prosecution to go forward.’”
She compared MIT’s response to statements from JSTOR, noting the online archive publicly oppposed the prosecution. “Aaron would be alive today if MIT had acted as JSTOR did,” she said. “MIT had a moral imperative to do so. And even now, MIT is still stonewalling. ... 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.”
Swartz’s father, Robert, who studied at MIT and serves as a consultant to the MIT Media Lab, met with university officials during the course of the prosecution and asked MIT to support efforts to have the charges dropped or to secure a plea bargain that would not include jail time, according to the press release. Two MIT faculty members also urged the administration to make such an appeal to prosecutors.
The report says that MIT decided neither to press for prosecution nor to advocate on Swartz’s behalf.
Those who called for a harder line against Swartz, who helped build RSS information-distribution software and merged his startup with the popular website Reddit.com, argued that failure to treat security breaches could embolden others to carry out more damaging thefts in the future.
The report, “MIT and the Prosecution of Aaron Swartz,” was led by Hal Abelson, a professor of computer science and engineering, at Reif’s request in January. In addition to Abelson, Peter Diamond, an MIT economist and professor emeritus; Andrew Grosso, a former assistant US attorney, and Douglas Pfeiffer, assistant provost for administration, helped conduct the investigation, which relied on interviews with 50 people, including MIT faculty, students, alumni and staff; lawyers, police officers, and prosecutors; and friends and family of Swartz. The team also reviewed about 10,000 pages of documents.
Here is the list of the report’s key findings from the statement issued by the university:
1. Beginning in September 2010, MIT and JSTOR observed massive downloading of JSTOR articles by a laptop connected to MIT’s network. The downloading recurred in October and December, and bypassed MIT’s attempts to stop it. The scale of the downloading was large enough that it threatened to shut down JSTOR’s overall service.
2. MIT did not learn that the person responsible for the downloading was Aaron Swartz until after his arrest, on an initial charge of breaking and entering.
3. MIT called in a Cambridge Police detective to help with its investigation. The detective arrived on campus accompanied by a federal special agent of the Secret Service, but the report found that MIT did not intentionally “call in the feds” to take over the investigation.
4. MIT did not request that federal charges be brought against Aaron Swartz. It was not consulted about its opinion about appropriate charges or punishment, and it did not offer any.
5. MIT was not involved in any plea negotiations, and was never asked — by either the prosecution or the defense — to approve or disapprove of any plea agreement.
6. From early on in the prosecution, MIT adopted a position of neutrality. It did not issue any public statements in support of Aaron Swartz, or against him. MIT privately communicated to the prosecutor’s office that it should not think that MIT wanted jail time for Swartz. MIT did not advocate, whether publicly or privately, either for or against jail time.
7. Until Aaron Swartz’s suicide, few people urged MIT to take a position on the prosecution.
8. The report notes that faculty were divided on the issue and that there was little student interest.
9. However, the report says that MIT’s neutrality stance 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.”