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MIT report’s findings mixed in Aaron Swartz case

No wrongdoing on activist, but leadership was lacking

At the time of his death, Aaron Swartz faced charges tied to downloading academic papers.

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2007

At the time of his death, Aaron Swartz faced charges tied to downloading academic papers.

MIT officials said in a long-awaited report Tuesday that administrators engaged in no wrongdoing and did not press authorities to prosecute Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in January after being charged with hacking into university computers and illegally downloading millions of academic articles.

The 180-page internal report, however, raised concerns about the lack of clarity of university policies, its failures of leadership, and lack of attention to such issues as hacker ethics and open-source ideals.

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“MIT didn’t do anything wrong; but we didn’t do ourselves proud,” it said.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology said it never sought punishment or jail time or opposed a plea bargain for Swartz, whose suicide triggered a national debate over whether prosecutors were overzealous.

“I am confident that MIT’s decisions were reasonable, appropriate, and made in good faith,” MIT president L. Rafael Reif said in a letter to the MIT community announcing the release of the report.

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At the time of his death, Swartz, who had informal connections to MIT, faced 13 federal felony charges relating to his downloading of nearly five million academic papers from the online archive JSTOR. The report said Swartz used a laptop computer left in a basement wiring closet in an MIT building that was physically connected to the university’s computer network.

From the time of Swartz’s arrest in January 2011 to his suicide in January 2013, the report says, MIT maintained a position of “neutrality” in the case.

The report noted that the university made no public statements regarding the merits of the case against Swartz, nor did it attempt to influence the prosecutor’s decisions, other than to tell the prosecutor that the government should not assume MIT wanted Swartz jailed.

Swartz’s relatives and friends have criticized MIT for not doing more to avert the prosecution and have called his death “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”

Swartz’s father, Robert, who studied at MIT and is a consultant to the school’s Media Lab, met with university officials during the prosecution and had asked MIT to support efforts to have the charges dropped or to secure a plea bargain that would not include jail time. Two MIT faculty members also urged the administration to make such an appeal to prosecutors.

In a statement, Robert Swartz called on MIT to acknowledge its culpability.

“It is clear that MIT in fact played a central role in Aaron’s suicide,” he wrote in an e-mail. “MIT made numerous mistakes that warrant further examination and significant changes.

“MIT was not neutral in the legal case against Aaron,” he added. “And whether MIT was neutral or not is a red herring: The university had a moral obligation to advocate on Aaron’s behalf.”

He and others blamed MIT for providing prosecutors information without subpoenas and warrants and giving them access to witnesses and information that they did not provide to the defense.

Robert Swartz, however, applauded the university for what he called its “commitment to self-examination” and called on Reif to involve him in the community engagement process to explore the issues raised by his son’s case. He said he hoped MIT would provide financial and administrative support to make all academic research journals open-access and investigate allegations of computer hacking internally rather than refer them to authorities.

In a telephone interview, Reif said there would be a long discussion in coming months about the university’s policies.

“I’m committing to opening the conversation and seeing where the conversation takes us,” he said.

Reif added he would “think about” whether to include Robert Swartz in an official role to engage in the campus debate over its policies. “I was not aware of his interest in that,” he said.

When asked why he chose an internal review rather than tapping someone from the outside, as Harvard did recently in its investigation of covert e-mail searches, Reif said he chose Hal Abelson, a professor of computer science and engineering at MIT, to lead the inquiry because he wanted someone who understands the issues and the institution.

“I wanted to do it with a person I knew and have the utmost respect for,” Reif said. “I thought it’s important to look at the context of open-access issues, and I have not only an expert but a pioneer.’’

In a post on his blog, Swartz’s mentor and vocal defender, Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, said MIT’s report undermines the contentions of prosecutors because it notes that university administrators never told prosecutors that Swartz’s access to the files was unauthorized.

“If indeed Aaron’s access was not ‘unauthorized,’ as Aaron’s team said from the start, and now MIT seems to acknowledge, then the tragedy of this prosecution has only increased,” Lessig wrote.

But a law enforcement official close to the inquiry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that Swartz knew his access was unauthorized.

“He took several steps to conceal his identity, including using an anonymous e-mail address that could not be contacted, using aliases when registering on the network” and other measures, said the official.

Swartz’s former girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who blames MIT for not doing more to protect Swartz, called the report a “whitewash.”

“The fact is that all MIT had to do was say publicly, ‘We don’t want this prosecution to go forward,’ ” she wrote on her blog.

MIT officials acknowledged that their notion of neutrality was admittedly complicated.

“The trouble is that neutrality has multiple meanings,” said Peter Diamond, the MIT economist and a coauthor of the report. “The world is a complicated place.”

Abelson added that while he views MIT’s actions as “appropriate” and “within the law,” he said, “MIT did not engage in this case with its full force of intellect and ability for deliberation that this case deserved.”

The irony, he said, is that Swartz’s actions resulted in the opposite of what he sought.

“The reason he could do what he did is that we had open access,” Abelson said. “For those of us at MIT who are very much in favor of open access, it’s ironic and sad that the consequences of his actions was to actually harm open access at MIT.”

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.
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