When I was an engineering student at MIT in the 1980s, a quarter century seemed like an eternity. College students focus on the here and now — a class, a grade, a night out — not on what they might be doing at 50. (Believe me: The idea of a regular Globe column was far from my mind at the time.)
To no surprise, the years that have passed since I graduated in 1986 feel shorter when glimpsed in a rearview mirror. But the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that has emerged in coverage of Aaron Swartz’s suicide is hard for me to recognize. The school, remembered by many alumni for its encouragement of the creative and unconventional, is said to have taken a hard line toward Swartz, an activist for digital freedom, who used the institute’s facilities to download millions of academic journal articles.
After Swartz returned the documents and apologized, JSTOR — the subscription service that was hacked — dropped a civil case against him. MIT, however, remained silent. Swartz’s family faulted the institute for failing to back him. One of his lawyers went farther, telling a Globe writer that the school had stood in the way of a plea deal that would have kept Swartz out of prison. Unfortunately, MIT still isn’t talking.
This approach looks remarkably self-centered and bureaucratic for an institution that once took pride in a long history of inspired pranks, the most celebrated of which rarely fell within the strict bounds of legality. During my freshman year, a determined MIT fraternity broke into Harvard Stadium — repeatedly — in order to bury a homemade device manufactured from vacuum cleaner parts and a weather balloon. The ensuing inflation in the midst of the 1982 Harvard-Yale game became an emblem of both the school’s technical prowess and its wit. Photographs of the moment adorned official MIT publications for years.
Swartz wasn’t a student at MIT, and his handiwork carried a political message. He believed that academic articles should be available digitally for free. But in the end, accessing the computer system “without authorization” was nothing more than a stunt. The real distinction was MIT’s passive reaction. That gave the US Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts the cover to pursue the case with vigor — which it did, despite being informed that Swartz’s fragile mental health placed him at risk for suicide.
This case has exposed a trend that should bother us all: the loss of common sense and good judgment as a basis for resolving differences, and the unrestrained use of prosecutorial power. The last “offer” issued by the US attorney demanded six months of jail time. Has anyone ever served a day for unauthorized use of MITs computer facilities? I doubt it — and certainly not someone who served as a Harvard fellow, as Swartz did.
Whereas the institute once would have taken pains to find an appropriate and internal resolution to violations of regulations — and even laws — within its campus, it chose to defer to others. That reaction isn’t unique to MIT, but rather a reflection of gradual changes in accepted cultural and government behavior over the past 20 years. Today, regulators and prosecutors regularly use their power to impose agreements, plea bargains, and consent decrees with little judicial review. They threaten the maximum penalty allowable — regardless of whether a rational mind would consider it fitting for the infraction — in order to gain an outcome that enhances their stature or pleases their political base.
In the aftermath of Swartz’s death, Congress will probably amend the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to differentiate the malicious from the merely mischievous. But the broader question remains. How do we return cultural norms at institutions like MIT, and in our society at large, to those that value common sense above the letter of the law? The federal computer fraud law is a particularly bad weapon for overzealous prosecutors, but even the most carefully crafted law cannot substitute for judicious decision-making.
For its part, MIT is conducting the inevitable soul-searching internal investigation. New administrative policies and campus rules will be written in the soft tones of academic boilerplate. But a new policy handbook will not suffice. This is a crisis of values and judgment, and it requires a change in attitude, starting at the top.
The questions central to Swartz’s actions also remain with us: In the digital universe, what should be public or private, paid or free? How much power should governments have over the online world? Ironically, these are questions that MIT, above all institutions, should be eager to help us answer.