MIT Report Defends College But Raises Uneasy Questions on Aaron Swartz Case

Hacktivist's Partner Blasts Internal Probe as 'Whitewash'

By Doni Bloomfield

Published July 30, 2013.
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An internal report from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology claims it did nothing wrong in the case of Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of Reddit and internet activist who committed suicide this January — but criticized administrators for displaying a disappointing failure of “leadership.”

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz

The review, led by an MIT alumnus, an MIT professor, and an independent lawyer, sought to investigate MIT’s role in the arrest, prosecution, and ultimate suicide of Swartz, tracing events from Swartz’s illegal downloads on MIT’s network in 2010 through Swartz’s death early this year. It was released Tuesday morning.

The authors suggest that “the world looks to MIT to be at the forefront” on internet activism and open access to information. But in the Swartz case, “the world didn’t see leadership,” it said. “Not meeting, accepting, and embracing the responsibility of leadership can bring disappointment.”

The investigation revealed the scale of Swartz’s illegal downloading activity, which grew so extensive that J-Stor, the academic database service he downloaded from, shut down MIT’s access for three days.

The report demonstrates the lengths to which MIT sought to remain absolutely neutral in the case, taking the “position that U.S. v. Swartz was simply a lawsuit to which it was not a party.” MIT, of course, did not argue in Swartz’s defense, either. The report sharply questions this purported neutraility and even quotes one of Swartz’s friends: “Neutrality on these cases is an incoherent stance. It’s not the right choice for a tough leader or a moral leader.”

MIT did not pursue federal involvement in the case, but it turned over extensive documentation of Swartz’s activities to authorities before being issued a subpoena, the report notes. The U.S. Attorney’s Office then pursued an aggressive prosecution of Swartz and this, along with other factors, likely contributed to his suicide this January.

Administrators privately informed the prosecutor’s office that MIT did not seek jail time for Swartz but didn’t oppose it, either.

MIT President Rafael Reif, writing to the university in the wake of the report’s release, reiterated that the report “makes clear that MIT did not ‘target’ Aaron Swartz, [nor] seek federal prosecution, punishment or jail time, and [MIT] did not oppose a plea bargain.”

Reif defended MIT’s actions, but he wrote that he “read the report with a tremendous sense of sorrow…. Even those of us who never knew him mourn the loss of someone so young and so brilliant.” In closing, he said, “I ask us to remember him and to come together as a community to discuss, deliberate, learn and act.”

Swartz’s father, Robert Swartz, who occasionally consults for MIT, told the New York Times that he was satisfied with the report but disheartened by MIT’s actions. “MIT claimed it was neutral,” he said, “and it was not — and besides, [it] should have advocated on Aaron’s behalf.”

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

To Steinebrickener-Kauffman, MIT’s behavior was anything but neutral, as it supplied the prosecution with evidence it refused the defense, and it failed to take the morally correct approach of defending Swartz, which J-Stor did.

“Aaron would be alive today if MIT had acted as J-Stor did,” Steinebrickener-Kauffman said.


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