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MIT will investigate its role in Aaron Swartz case

School, US criticized after hacker’s suicide

Aaron Swartz was to go on trial in April.

The president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced Sunday that the university will launch a “thorough analysis” of MIT’s involvement in the federal hacking case against computer prodigy Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide Friday.

Swartz’s trial for mass-downloading subscription-based documents from an archive system on MIT’s network was scheduled to begin in April. He faced up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Since Swartz’s death, MIT and the federal government have come under scathing criticism by supporters, and by his family, who released a statement Saturday saying MIT and the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts contributed to Swartz’s death because of “intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”


The death of Swartz, a much-loved figure for his staunch belief that information should be free and open for all on the Internet, has rocked the hacking and wider online community. He was a cofounder of the news site Reddit.

Nearly 10,000 people had signed an online petition at We the People — the White House petition-gathering site — by Sunday night urging the Obama administration to remove US Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Massachusetts for “overreach” in Swartz’s case.

The Department of Justice could not be reached Sunday and declined to comment on Saturday.

MIT president L. Rafael Reif said Swartz was admired by many in the MIT community, even though he had no formal affiliation with the university. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,” Reif wrote in a letter to the university community.

“Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT,” he wrote.

“I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.”


Abelson is a respected computer science and electrical engineering professor and a founding director of Creative Commons, the nonprofit dedicated to sharing works on the Web through free legal tools.

In July 2011, Swartz, who acknowledged battling depression, was charged in US District Court in Boston with hacking into the archive system JSTOR on MIT’s network during 2010 and downloading more than 4 million articles, some of which were only available for purchase.

Authorities said Swartz planned to distribute the information free on file-sharing websites. At the time, he was a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

According to court documents, Swartz pleaded not guilty Sept. 24. The case will be dismissed as a result of Swartz’s suicide, his attorney Elliot Peters said in an e-mail Sunday night.

At a sedate gathering Sunday afternoon attended by a handful of people in a hallway outside the Office of the General Counsel at MIT, supporters of Swartz sat in a circle discussing open-source issues.

MIT’s website was down for a few hours Sunday night, and a spokeswoman said she had no information about it. By late evening, several subdomains of the university’s website had been turned into a memorial page for Swartz. The hacker collective Anonymous took responsibility for the action.


In an e-mail, Peters said it was right that MIT was looking into its role in the case.

“[MIT] invited the feds into the situation. The feds then took it over and blew it all out of proportion. . . . In reality, it is unlikely any crime had been committed,” he wrote. “Aaron simply was not a criminal. He was a computer prodigy, an Internet freedom activist, and a sensitive, thoughtful 26-year-old young man. For this case to have contributed in any way to his taking his own life is truly tragic.”

Reif said he will share the results of the analysis once they are available.

JSTOR released a statement on its website expressing sorrow about Swartz’s suicide.

“The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge,” the statement read.

“At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Evanmallen