Aaron Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison when he committed suicide in January.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has concluded that there was “no wrongdoing on MIT’s part” in the prosecution and suicide of internet activist and computer programmer Aaron Swartz.
The findings were released today in a 180-page report that followed a review conducted by Hal Abelson, a professor of computer science and engineering at MIT. Abelson was asked to lead the internal probe by MIT President L. Rafael Reif in January after Swartz hanged himself in his New York apartment.
Swartz, who was 26, was facing up to 35 years in prison after he was accused of breaking into an MIT closet in 2011 and making unauthorized downloads of millions of scholarly articles from the journal archive JSTOR. According to a federal indictment, Swartz was allegedly going to make the articles free and downloadable online.
The open-access advocate’s death resulted in a wave of criticism, hackings and threats aimed at MIT for what Swartz’s supporters saw as complacency or even condemnation regarding the programmer’s prosecution, which many observers thought to be too harsh.
But, the report concluded, MIT does not believe it played any serious part in Swartz’s prosecution or death.
“MIT did not request that federal charges be brought against Aaron Swartz,” the school said in a statement. “It was not consulted about its opinion about appropriate charges or punishment, and it did not offer any. 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.”
See Page 2 for what Aaron Swartz’s loved ones think of the report’s findings.
MIT, instead, adopted a “position of neutrality,” according to the report, privately communicating to the prosecutor’s office that Swartz did not deserve jail time, but not advocating publicly for any outcome in the case.
In an eMailed statement, Swartz’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, said she disagreed with the report’s findings, calling MIT “reprehensible” and its report a “whitewash.”
“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,” she said. “That’s not neutral.”
If MIT had reacted to Swartz’s alleged crime in a way similar to JSTOR, which came out against the prosecution publicly, Stinebrickner-Kauffman said, then Swartz would still be alive.
“MIT had a moral imperative to do so,” she said.
Charlie Furman, campaign manager for Demand Progress, the activist organization Swartz founded in 2010, said the report was a “disappointment” and that it failed to fully represent MIT’s critics. Like Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Furman disagreed with the report’s conclusion that MIT had remained “neutral” during the prosecution.
“It seems like the really brilliant minds at MIT cannot grasp that logical legal procedures would have saved Aaron’s life,” he said. “If they had said publicly ‘we don’t want this to go forward,’ there would have been no case. Failure to speak when you have the power to change the outcome, that’s not neutral. That’s complicit.”
Furman also took umbrage with the amount of time MIT took to complete its report. In February, Abelson said he hoped the report would be “ready in a few weeks.” Instead, seven months passed before it was released.
While still stressing that MIT did nothing wrong, the report and President Reif said that due to the important issues of open-access and computer crime laws that surrounded the case, MIT did miss “an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership that we pride ourselves on.”
“Knowing the tragedy of Aaron Swartz’s death, I read the report with a tremendous sense of sorrow,” Reif wrote in a letter. “His family and friends suffered a terrible personal loss, and the Internet community lost an exceptional leader. Even those of us who never knew him mourn the loss of someone so young and so brilliant.”
‘Key Findings’ from MIT’s Report
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.
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.
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.
MIT did not request that federal charges be brought against Aaron Swartz. The university was not consulted about its opinion about appropriate charges or punishment, and it did not offer any.
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.
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.
Until Aaron Swartz’s suicide, few people urged MIT to take a position on the prosecution.
The report notes that faculty were divided on the issue and that there was little student interest.
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.”