Analysis: Activist Swartz’s Suicide Could Shake MIT to Its Core
Federal prosecutors are weighing in for the first time publicly about the case against Aaron Swartz, the activist programmer and Internet pioneer who committed suicide last week after being charged with more than a dozen federal computer crimes.
The government’s comments certainly make the possible punishment that Swartz faced seem less daunting than many previous accounts. Prosecutors revealed that they never intended to seek the decades of maximum sentences allowed by law, and in fact Swartz was offered a deal for six months in a low-security prison.
That explanation may not silence a wave of public outrage over the case. But the unanswered questions about MIT’s involvement in the case could also be troublesome for the university’s leaders. (More on that below.)
For the best summary of Swartz’s case, see the interactive timeline produced by The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper—it gives many details that aren’t available without access to the federal court system’s electronic filing site.
But here’s a quick recap of the facts:
Swartz, 26, was arrested in early 2010 after MIT officials found a computer wired into the university’s network in a basement room. The computer was attached to external hard drives, and had been using specialized programs to repeatedly download scholarly articles from the subscription site JSTOR, authorities said.
Authorities said they identified Swartz checking on the setup over video surveillance and subsequently searched his home and office. It quickly became a federal case, with the justification that the downloading occurred across state lines.
Swartz had pled not guilty to the government’s 13 charges, and his case was expected to go to trial in the spring.
While described as a brilliant mind, Swartz had also written publicly about his own battles with depression. He committed suicide Jan. 11, and in public statements since his death, Swartz’s family has said the government had severely overreached in its pursuit of criminal charges. They also criticized MIT for its role in the case.
“Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death,” Swartz’s family said. “The U.S. attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”
Today, Boston-based U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz made her first public statement on the case since Swartz’s suicide was first reported by The Tech over the weekend. While expressing sympathy, Ortiz also defended her team’s actions.
She also points out a very significant fact that had been leaked to the press already: Rather than the 35 years and $1 million in fines that Swartz could have theoretically suffered under a maximum sentence on all the charges, prosecutors wanted to cut a deal that would recommend a judge sentence him to six months in a low-security prison.
“The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct—while a violation of the law—did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the sentencing guidelines,” Ortiz wrote. “At no time did this office ever seek—or ever tell Mr. Swartz’s attorneys that it intended to seek—maximum penalties under the law.”
Swartz’s lawyers, meanwhile, have said they didn’t plan to take the prosecution’s plea deal, hoping instead to win the case at trial.
While Swartz pled not guilty, it seems clear from court filings that he did some things that could get him into trouble: repeatedly hooking into MIT’s network, trying several times to evade attempts by the university and JSTOR to shut him down, and downloading more articles than JSTOR intended any one visitor to possess.
JSTOR declined to pursue a case against Swartz once it got its files back. One mitigating factor may have been his intentions with the journal articles—Swartz had written online about the need to unlock information, particularly scholarly research, from restrictions preventing it from being freely shared.
“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world,” he wrote in an article titled “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.”
His lawyers argued that the mass downloads shouldn’t necessarily amount to a federal crime anyway. “The number of articles downloaded by Swartz may have exceeded JSTOR’s terms of service, but the wire fraud statute does not exist to police violations of private contracts,” Swartz’s legal team wrote.
At this point, we’re left with two big questions:
—Now that we know Swartz may have gotten off with a pretty light sentence, does it seem less wrong for prosecutors to have pursued such an array of charges against him?
One issue to consider, illustrated in an excellent piece by The Wall Street Journal, is the apparent breadth of a key federal computer-crime law. The law was written in the mid-1980s, and made broad to keep up with the rapid change of technology.
But in such situations, it’s also possible to wind up roping in establishment-tweaking, relatively harmless hacker-activists like Swartz along with honest-to-goodness hardened criminals.
It looks like Swartz did some things that could be charged as federal crimes—his defense team’s court filings had so far focused on technical reasons why some charges didn’t apply to his actions, and questions about whether police searches were conducted properly.
If you’re going to play in that territory, even as an activist, you should be prepared for some consequences.
—Why didn’t MIT stop pursuing the case?
The case’s two victims were JSTOR and MIT. It’s been widely reported that JSTOR officials stopped pressing the authorities to go after Swartz. But MIT appears to have remained an active part of the case.
Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor who was a friend of Swartz’s and says he gave advice about the case, wrote on his blog that JSTOR requested that the government drop its case and didn’t pursue its own civil lawsuit. “MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse” necessary to pursue its case, Lessig wrote.
One of Swartz’s lawyers also told the Boston Globe that he’d gotten close to negotiating a deal for Swartz not to serve any prison time, but couldn’t get approval from MIT. The Huffington Post quotes an anonymous source at MIT saying the case “snowballed” out of the school’s hands.
The university’s president, meanwhile, has launched an internal investigation into the school’s involvement. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,” president L. Rafael Reif wrote.
Federal prosecutors could always say they were just doing their jobs, and as harsh as the charges seem, there’d be some truth behind that explanation. But the university had its own choice to make, just like JSTOR—and if MIT had stepped away from the case, the authorities would have been left to pursue an essentially victimless crime.
Especially in light of the university’s professed culture of openness, the school’s answers could have serious consequences for its leadership. This one isn’t going away.