MIT's Aaron Swartz report: A difficult explanation of a 'family matter'
Photo courtesy demandprogress.org
- Galen Moore
- Web Editor-Boston Business Journal
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The Massachusetts Institute of Technologyon Tuesday issued a report resulting from a seven-month investigation into how the university handled the prosecution ofAaron Swartz, an Internet activist and prodigy whose January death by suicidehas been blamed on overzealous prosecution.
In his letter introducing the report, MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote that it dispels "myths" about how the university handled a case in which Swartz was accused of illegally downloading peer-reviewed articles from publisher Jstor (Ithaka Harbors) by hacking into the MIT network. A news release stated the report found "no wrongdoing" on MIT's part.
In fact, the report delivers more awkwardness than clarity, as its authors acknowledge the university leaned toward the prosecution against an activist for Internet freedom of information, whom one of its own leaders has suggested should be called a member of the MIT "family."
MIT "did not 'target' Aaron Swartz," "did not seek federal prosecution," and "did not oppose a plea bargain," Reif wrote.
But in a statement issued soon after the report's release, Aaron Swartz's partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, called it a "whitewash."
"The fact is that all MIT had to do was say publicly, 'We don’t want this prosecution to go forward' – and (Assistant U.S. Attorney) Steve Heymann and (U.S. Attorney) Carmen Ortizwould have had no case," Stinebrickner-Kauffman wrote. "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."
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The report itself, led by MIT Prof. Harold Abelson, MIT Prof. Emeritus Peter Diamondand former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Grosso, details how the university decided to make no intervention on Swartz's behalf, despite an entreaty from its newly appointed Media Lab director, Joichi Ito. "I wonder if there is any way that MIT might consider this a 'family matter' and consider helping to try to limit the extent of the punishment and at least prevent Aaron from going to prison on a felony charge," Ito wrote to MIT's Office of the General Counsel in June 2011, according to the report. "Obviously it (Swartz's alleged hack) was a stupid thing to do, but the weight of the possible sentence seems quite harsh in my personal opinion."
MIT could have handled Swartz's case as it did that of David LaMacchia in 1994. LaMacchia, a student, had used university computers to share games and other copyrighted material. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston wanted to charge him using the same statute it would later use to prosecute Swartz. The university protected LaMacchia by simply stating that his activity was authorized under its internal policies.
The Swartz prosecution also hinged on this question of authorization, as Harvard Law Prof.Lawrence Lessig pointed out today in a blog post on the report.
MIT decided not to do the same for Swartz as it had for LaMacchia, because Swartz was not a student – despite Ito's letter, which noted that Swartz's brother was an MIT student, and his father was an employee of the Media Lab. Swartz also, the report makes clear, was a frequent participant in MIT institutions and activities.
Instead, MIT chose to remain "neutral" and stay quiet. In July 2011, Jstor issued a statement to the effect that it had "no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter." MIT did not issue any statement. "The time of Jstor’s statement was a particular opportunity for MIT to issue its own statement," the report notes
Even "neutral" required some qualification in the report. The authors acknowledge the university's interests were aligned against Swartz's legal defense, once his lawyers filed motions to suppress evidence that accused the university of violating federal law and Swartz's constitutional rights.
From well before those motions, MIT had worked more closely with prosecution attorneys than with the defense – for example, allowing prosecutors and investigators to directly telephone and email MIT employees – according to the report. The defense was never given permission to interview any MIT employee without an MIT lawyer present.
MIT also voluntarily gave the prosecution copies of documents it had provided to the defense. It never did the same for the defense, although Swartz's attorneys had subpoenaed documents provided to the prosecution. MIT lawyers were operating under the assumption that the defense was able to get those documents from the prosecution, according to the report.
What emerges from this report is a picture of an institution that was more eager to cooperate with prosecutors than it was to hear the sentiments of those within its own community who questioned whether the punishment fit the crime. Meanwhile, we're still waiting to see Department of Homeland Security documents FOIA'd by Wired editor Kevin Poulsen but blocked by a request from MIT. So far, this report only highlights the awkward position the university finds itself in.
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