Report Details MIT’s Involvement in Aaron Swartz Case

by Jay London on July 31, 2013

in In the News

MIT_seal_redMIT has released a report that details the Institute’s involvement in the case of Aaron Swartz, the computer programmer who committed suicide in January 2013. The report, “MIT and the Prosecution of Aaron Swartz,” describes MIT’s actions and addresses whether the Institute should have been more actively involved.

In a July 30 letter, President L. Rafael Reif thanks Professor Hal Abelson PhD ’73 and his panel for the thorough analysis of the events.

“The review panel’s careful account provides something we have not had until now: an independent description of the actual events at MIT and of MIT’s decisions in the context of what MIT knew as the events unfolded. The report also sets the record straight by dispelling widely circulated myths. For example, it makes clear that MIT did not ‘target’ Aaron Swartz, we did not seek federal prosecution, punishment or jail time, and we did not oppose a plea bargain.”

The 182-page report was directed by Abelson with support from Professor emeritus Peter Diamond PhD ’63, former assistant U.S. attorney Andrew Grosso, and assistant provost Andrew Douglas Pfeiffer.

The report’s findings are based on a review of approximately 10,000 pages of documents and interviews with approximately 50 MIT community members, lawyers, police officers, prosecutors, and friends and family of Swartz.

MIT News summarized the report and noted several key findings:

  • MIT did not request federal charges be brought against Swartz and was not consulted about its opinion about appropriate charges or punishment.
  • MIT was not involved in any plea negotiations, and was never asked — by either the prosecution or the defense — to approve or disapprove of any plea agreement.
  • From early on in the prosecution, MIT adopted a position of neutrality.

More information:

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Raphael Vermeir August 29, 2013 at 7:49 am

I just wanted to share my view that the letter from the President Rafael Reif is so well put and shows integrity, seriousness and compassion.
I am extremely impressed.
Best regards,
Raphael Vermeir CBE

Reply

Steve Mahler, AIA August 29, 2013 at 10:34 am

In his letter President Reif acknowledges that MIT’s neutral response to the Swartz prosecution might have been been different if the larger context of the events had received greater consideration, and he directs the Institute towards more active leadership in the important policy areas surrounding the case. I applaud both his candor and his call to action.

Reif’s response gives me hope that some good will come from the Swartz tragedy, and that future legal actions around information security may be directed with better intent and less brutality.

Steve Mahler, AIA

Reply

R.V.Garvin '50 August 29, 2013 at 11:57 am

Very impressive report. I’m left with a few overall impressions:
1. The Secret Service and the Justice Department leaped into this case with hobnailed boots, apparently determined to make it as serious as possible.
2. There is an air of unappealing legalistic piety to MIT’s profession of strict neutrality.
3. Swartz (and the case) reminds me of PFC Manning, engaging in a criminal act for what probably seemed to him worthy and moral reasons.
4. Thereupon, the government is determined to discourage would-be imitators by the firmness of its actions.
5. Swartz took his life when he realized that others regarded his acts as very serious.

Reply

Jack Kinstlinger August 30, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Strict neutrality by MIT is not satisfactory. Swartz, as an MIT student became a member of the MIT family and deserved more active support from the Institure. If I were ever to get into trouble, I would expect more than neutrality from members of my family.

Reply

Alberto September 2, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Aaron Swartz was not an MIT student or alumnus. I would suggest reading at least the “Report FAQs” linked in the article.

Reply

Jack Kinstlinger September 3, 2013 at 10:51 am

You are correct he was not an MIT student, my mistake . This puts the MIT position in a more favorable light.

Reply

Beez September 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm

And, the broad willingness of people to weigh in without knowing some of the key facts also puts MIT’s detractors in a LESS favorable light.

Reply

Alan S. Albin September 6, 2013 at 4:54 pm

There’s nothing at all in the report about Mr. Swartz’s prior psychological history, if any. Most likely because it’s confidential/inaccessible but without knowing how much Mr. Swartz’s personal issues (if any) prior to the JSTOR prosecution contributed to his suicide, a giant piece of the puzzle is missing.

I’m not sure I’d agree that if M.I.T. were to adopt a non-neutral position w/r/t the criminal prosecution of one of its community members, the default should be one of support, certainly it’s questionable if there are allegations of serious felonious behavior.

Reply

Triple H September 6, 2013 at 5:29 pm

“Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.”
No one is responsible for their own fate but themselves. Swarz decision to take his life was his own and no one else’s. A selfish act that affects more than just himself. As many of us have probably had to experiences with someone taking their own life. His decision to break the law and break into MIT’s databases was his own as well and he should have been prepared for the consequences no matter how altruistic he thought his actions were. He was not a student at MIT, had no right to the information he sought no matter for what use.

Reply

Veronica September 6, 2013 at 10:40 pm

Thank you to the Institute for its transparency and conscientiousness in providing this report. I’m sharing my thoughts here as an MIT alum.

According to the FAQ link above, “only two professors suggested to members of the MIT administration that the Institute should advocate on [Schwartz's] behalf.” I have read the full report, and I would like to express that this sentence may be misleading in its tone.

One of these professors set up, and attended, four separate meetings with administrators to advocate for Aaron. The other professor contacted three administrators. Finally, the Media Lab director (separately from these two unnamed professors, I presume), also sent an email to advocate on Aaron’s behalf. A fourth person outside of MIT, a leader in the global open source movement, emailed MIT’s president and chancellor with a similar message.

In all, there were numerous contacts from people of presumably high integrity to urge an appropriate response to this incident. How many professors speaking up would have been enough? That sentence in the FAQ minimizes the extent to which MIT administrators were alerted to the urgency and importance of this situation, as a human and ethical issue.

In my personal opinion, the very least MIT should have done is to issue a public statement similar to that of JSTOR. The statement by JSTOR was an opportunity to do so. It is clear that MIT was uncertain what the outcome would be (including for Aaron himself) of speaking publicly on this case. However, it is also clear to me as an outsider that a brief, careful statement similar to that of JSTOR was not equal to a “wild Internet campaign.” It would have been possible for MIT to issue a brief statement that wouldn’t reasonably have harmed Aaron’s case, goaded the prosecution, or departed from neutrality.

One suggestion (that I did not read about in the report) is that MIT leadership could have sought outside counsel from relevant legal or ethical thought leaders, in addition to their internal MIT legal team, at some of these key decision points. Would outside counsel have changed the course of action? It’s unclear, but from an outsider’s perspective, the numerous contacts on behalf of Aaron were impetus enough to seek it.

Further in the report, it was troubling was that MIT provided documents to the prosecution but not to the defense. MIT’s position of neutrality was a defensible one, taken in good faith. On my reading of the report, it seemed that MIT diverged from that position because it was in the difficult situation of being itself targeted for illegal activity as a defense strategy. Therefore, it provided documents and meetings to the prosecution without providing them equally to the defense.

What is so disconcerting, to me as a reader, is that this is what ethical breaches can sometimes look like — in life and throughout history. They occur when good people (or good institutions) diverge from their principles for justifiable reasons, while under duress. Despite being in a difficult position, I think that MIT made the wrong choice and should have equally and neutrally provided materials to both sides.

Ethical decision-making in this type of situation will never be based on a set of preconceived written guidelines. It requires strong leadership that emerges in meetings, private discussions, and internal debates — which includes seeking outside counsel. In the future, could prosecutorial (or defense) bullying allow MIT to depart from its principled positions? How might this shape our legal and technological future? This is no small consideration — MIT is an institution with significant voice in our economy, country, and world. I hope for strong leadership from the president, chancellor, and other top administrators, and especially strong leadership in these challenging situations. I hope that top MIT administrators will learn as much as they can from this incident.

Thank you to Professor Abelson and his team for the thorough, thoughtful, and engaging report, and to President Reif for his communications to the community. The report’s “Questions for the Community” were excellent, especially question 4. It would be wonderful to see a joint MIT-Harvard Law program around technology law. I hope these questions will lead to positive outcomes.

Reply

charlylp September 8, 2013 at 9:50 am

I find MIT should have tried to manage the whole deal without police/ US Attorney intervention until a full evaluation of the findings have been done. Homeland Security Act has (unintentionally )awakened dark forces in US society, producing more harm than good to citizens in every day life in the US.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: