MIT never asked for a role in the tragic story of Aaron Swartz, but it played one anyway — as documented in a long-awaited internal report on the case. In early 2011, the brilliant but troubled computer hacker broke into a closet at the university, where he set up a laptop to download millions of academic journal articles. Swartz, a fellow at Harvard at the time, was arrested by MIT police. The arrest set in motion a chain of events with awful consequences: Federal officials got wind of the break-in; Swartz was charged with felony computer crimes under a law widely criticized for its breadth; deeply depressed and facing years in prison, he committed suicide in January.
Since Swartz’s death, MIT has faced a torrent of angry criticism. The report, prepared by a committee led by computer science professor Hal Abelson, details a string of fateful decisions that were made in good faith and are defensible individually, but still led to a dreadful outcome. MIT, which was understandably wary of standing up for a non-student who abused its computer systems, stood by passively as federal prosecutors overreacted to what could have been treated as a minor case.
Swartz had used MIT’s network and guest access privileges to download articles from the academic database JSTOR, which later urged explicitly that Swartz not be prosecuted. His defenders say the university, as one of the victims, should have taken a similar step. Instead, MIT neither requested nor opposed federal indictments, and rebuffed numerous requests to urge leniency.
MIT’s posture, which Abelson’s team describes as “neutrality,” reflected a deeper ambivalence among members of the university community. Some saw heavy criminal penalties for hackers as a violation of MIT’s spirit and a threat to Internet freedom. Others, according to Abelson’s team, felt it was important that Swartz be punished; still others decided that since Swartz wasn’t an MIT student, there was no need for the university to defend him.
But although Swartz wasn’t a student, he was a well-known figure at MIT and a participant in campus groups. Even if he wasn’t a member of the community, does that mean the university should apply a different set of values — acceding to felony charges for an act that, if committed by a student or faculty member, might have yielded a mild internal punishment? Perhaps there was no dissuading the US Attorney’s Office in Boston, but no one was in a better position to try than MIT.
A show of leadership from MIT likely would have had broad ramifications. The computer-crimes law that allowed prosecutors to threaten Swartz with 35 years in prison is widely perceived as outdated and unduly harsh. Laws that protect against truly malicious hacking, while protecting innovation and free inquiry, are in both the national interest and in MIT’s. Yet the institute, unlike Harvard, Stanford, and other top universities, has kept a low profile on the very public-policy questions that its scholars often understand best — a tendency the Abelson report asks the community to reconsider. MIT officials acted in good faith. But they missed a chance to help Swartz — and to make a larger mark in a vital national debate.