An internal investigation by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is billed by the school as evidence the school acted appropriately in the case of Aaron Swartz, but supporters of the late freedom-of-information advocate are calling it a “whitewash.”
Swartz, 26, committed suicide after federal prosecutors targeted him for downloading academic journals and articles from a subscription database, JSTOR, and publishing them online for free.
The 182-page report, which was released to the public on Tuesday, concluded that MIT officials did not know prior to Swartz’s arrest that he was the one downloading journal articles from the school’s network, and that school officials did not “call in the feds” to pursue charges against him.
Instead, the university insists its first concern was “to stop the use of its network, by an unknown person, to download massive numbers of articles from the JSTOR database.”
“There were too many choices, too many might-have-beens, too great an emotional shock, and a public response that has been supercharged by the power of the Internet, the same power that Aaron Swartz epitomized and that he helped to create,” the report concluded. “Even today, with the benefit of hindsight, we have not found a silver bullet with which MIT could have simply prevented the tragedy.”
The MIT report followed a six-month investigation led by Harold Abelson, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science. As part of the investigation, the report’s authors interviewed dozens of MIT employees and law enforcement officials and reviewed university emails and records from the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston.
MIT President Rafael Reif said in a statement that the findings dispel “widely circulated myths” about the university’s involvement in the case.
“I am confident that MIT’s decisions were reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith,” he said.
Reif said he has also asked university officials to review MIT’s policies “on the collection, provision and retention of electronic records” and has asked students, alumni, faculty and staff to have a discussion about the case’s broader questions of “open access, intellectual property, responsibility and ethics in the digital domain.”
Frustrated by the high cost of scholarly journals, Swartz decided published the JSTOR articles online because he believed the information should be available to everyone free of charge. But the U.S. Justice Department charged him with trespassing and user policy violations under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Swartz faced the chance of spending more than 30 years in prison for his alleged crimes. JSTOR never pressed charges against him.
Swartz was supposed to go to trial in April, but in January he committed suicide. Many of his supporters have blamed his premature death on the impending federal trial and blame prosecutors and MIT for pursuing the case.
While the internal report found that school officials did not actively advocate for federal prosecutors to prosecute and charge Swartz, the panel still criticized MIT for its “hands-off” attitude.
“If the Review Panel is forced to highlight just one issue for reflection, we would choose to look to the MIT administration’s maintenance of a ‘neutral’ hands-off attitude that regarded the prosecution as a legal dispute to which it was not a party,” the report said. “This attitude was complemented by the MIT community’s apparent lack of attention to the ruinous collision of hacker ethics, open-source ideals, questionable laws, and aggressive prosecutions that was playing out in its midst.”
“By responding as we did, MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership that we pride ourselves on,” the authors concluded.
In response to the report, Swartz’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, released a statement saying, “MIT’s behavior throughout the case was reprehensible, and this report is quite frankly a whitewash.”
“Aaron would be alive today if MIT had acted as JSTOR did,” he said. “MIT had a moral imperative to do so.”
According to The Huffington Post, Swartz’s father, Robert, said he had not yet seen the university’s report but hoped the university realized it “made significant mistakes in how it handled Aaron’s situation and that the university will commit to making substantive changes to prevent these kinds of tragedies in the future.”
Robert Swartz, a former intellectual property consultant for MIT, said the university should also provide financial and administrative support to make academic research journals accessible to the public. He said the university should mandate internal reviews for computer hacking allegations before a case is referred to outside law enforcement agencies.
Many Swartz supporters are still upset that, according to the report, MIT indicated to law enforcement that Swartz had “unauthorized” access to the network. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor and friend of Swartz, said that since there is no law against “abusing an ethernet jack,” this detail changes the case against Swartz completely.
“The whole predicate to the government’s case was that Aaron’s access to the network was ‘unauthorized,’ yet apparently in the many many months during which the government was prosecuting, they were too busy to determine whether indeed, access to the network was ‘authorized,’” he said.