MIT Swartz Report: Instead of Leading, School was “Hands-Off”

7/30/13Follow @curtwoodward

MIT’s internal report on its role in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz—the Internet activist who committed suicide earlier this year amid a federal criminal case—is critical of the university’s “hands-off” approach and lack of leadership.

The Swartz report team, led by computer science professor Hal Abelson, found that MIT leaders cooperated with authorities but otherwise strove to remain “neutral,” neither lobbying for criminal prosecution nor asking federal officials to drop Swartz’s case, despite requests from faculty members, Swartz’s family, and his defense team that it more forcefully support the celebrated engineer.

The report also says the broader MIT community paid little attention to “the ruinous collision of hacker ethics, open-source ideals, questionable laws, and aggressive prosecutions that was playing out in its midst.”

But the school could have done more, the internal report’s authors say. Although the report notes that MIT did not want it to draw any conclusions, the authors gently criticized the school for failing to take a more active role in the Swartz case, which pulled together precisely the type of arguments about academic freedom, technology policy, and information access that the school and its alumni consider very important.

“Looking back on the Aaron Swartz case, the world didn’t see leadership. As one person involved in the decisions put it: `MIT didn’t do anything wrong; but we didn’t do ourselves proud,’” the report says.

The massive set of documents was released online Tuesday, fulfilling MIT president L. Rafael Reif’s promise to openly examine the famous private university’s involvement in Swartz’s case. “Knowing the tragedy of Aaron Swartz’s death, I read the report with a tremendous sense of sorrow,” Reif wrote in a letter accompanying the release.

Swartz, who was a heralded software engineer and longtime activist for open information, was arrested by local and federal authorities in early 2011 for hooking a computer up to MIT’s network and downloading millions of files from JSTOR, an online database of academic research articles. He was later charged with federal computer crimes and could have been sentenced to prison time if convicted.

Swartz’s family, friends, and defense team have vocally criticized MIT for not lobbying federal prosecutors to halt the case. They point out that JSTOR, whose property had been downloaded, was pointedly not in favor of a criminal case against Swartz, having separately settled with him.

MIT’s internal report addresses that matter, pointing to statements from the federal prosecutor as a reason the school remained on the sidelines.

“One of the reasons for MIT’s silence was the good faith belief, based on private conversations with the lead prosecutor, that the Institute’s opinion would have no effect on the prosecution, and that public statements might make circumstances worse for Aaron Swartz,” the report says. “MIT did inform the prosecution that it was not seeking punishment for Swartz, and it did inform the defense that it was not seeking any civil remedy from him.”

Swartz’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, criticized the MIT report. “MIT’s behavior throughout the case was reprehensible, and this report is quite frankly a whitewash,” she said in a statement.

Federal prosecutors also have been criticized for what some say was an overzealous prosecution of a harmless, well-known activist. Boston-based U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, the area’s top federal prosecutor, has called Swartz’s death a tragedy and said the case points to a need for better ways of ensuring defendants’ mental health needs are being addressed.

The report itself is some 180 pages, with additional supporting materials including the school’s communications with federal prosecutors and Swartz’s defense team. Some of those are redacted to remove identifying information about specific people at MIT—the school has also pursued similar secrecy in related court cases about the release of documents, saying that it fears retribution from people upset about the Swartz case.

One crucial point from early in the investigation is how the federal government became so heavily involved in what appeared to be a local police matter. In Tuesday’s report, MIT says that a Secret Service agent showed up on the campus alongside the Cambridge police detective who was called in to investigate Swartz’s use of a networking closet to access the school’s network.

The local detective was a member of the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force, which encourages close cooperation between local, state, and federal authorities.

“While the inclusion of the Secret Service agent was not the intention of MIT, it was a recognized possibility,” the report notes, adding that “MIT did not intentionally `call in the feds’ to take over the investigation.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • FredInIT

    Of the three possible actions MIT could have done – Lead, Follow, Get out of the way.

    Instead, they did nothing – they stood there with their thumbs up their collective arses while Oriz worked on getting another notch on her holster.

    Definitely not the shining example someone would expect from one of the most esteemed institutes of higher education in the world.

    Maybe Schwartz should have gone to Uof IL Urbana, or UofW Madison were mid-western sensibilities about standing up for what is right still happen.

    • jim allen

      FredinIt I agree with you, no backbone, I thought MIT was a leader. What good is an education if you don’t stand up for yourselves and friends. The socialists don’t like any annoyance.