MIT Clears Itself of Wrongdoing in Report on the Aaron Swartz Case

The much anticipated report found that the university acted ‘in good faith’ during Swartz’s prosecution.

MIT released its much anticipated internal review of the university’s actions in the prosecution of internet activist Aaron Swartz, who faced federal charges for downloading millions of academic documents from the MIT servers when he committed suicide last October. The report, compiled by a committee appointed by MIT’s President L. Rafael Reif, found that MIT didn’t commit any wrongdoing, but questioned broadly whether the university could have taken an advocacy role in the larger issues Swartz’s case addressed before his death. Already, that’s a conclusion with which Swartz’s supporters disagree.

 “From studying this review of MIT’s role, I am confident that MIT’s decisions were reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith,” President Reif said in a letter this morning. “I have heard from many in our community who believe our actions were proper and justified. Others feel differently, and the review panel identifies alternate paths we could have followed, including becoming more actively involved in the case as it evolved. I am sure there will be further discussion and reflection now that we have the report in hand.”

MIT is, of course, reacting to the widespread criticism it received from Swartz’s advocates, many of whom characterized the university as supportive of the U.S. Attorney’s harsh prosecution. Since Swartz’s death, MIT has been subject not just to scrutiny, but to fake gun threats and ill-considered email pranks all nominally in honor of Swartz.  In light of that, President Reif asked Professor Hal Abelson, one of the founders of Creative Commons and a supporter of open access to the internet, to lead an oversight panel. This is the product of that panel’s work.

MIT released a helpful bullet point list of the lengthy report’s conclusions. In short, the report argues that there’s no “silver bullet” change that MIT could have made to its policies that would have prevented Swartz’s death. And it characterizes the university’s involvement in that case as “neutral” and only questions that stance in a broad sense. Already Aaron Swartz’s (romantic) partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman has released a statement calling the report “whitewash.”

The fact is that all MIT had to do was say publicly, “We don’t want this prosecution to go forward” – and Steve Heymann and Carmen Ortiz would have had no case. We have an institution to contrast MIT with – JSTOR, who came out immediately and publicly against the prosecution. Aaron would be alive today if MIT had acted as JSTOR did. MIT had a moral imperative to do so.

MIT’s report and subsequently President Reif found no such fault in their behavior during his case, and only questioned whether the university could have looked more broadly at the policies involved in his prosecution:

However, the report says that MIT’s neutrality stance did not consider factors including “that the defendant was an accomplished and well-known contributor to Internet technology”; that the law under which he was charged “is a poorly drafted and questionable criminal law as applied to modern computing”; and that “the United States was pursuing an overtly aggressive prosecution.” While MIT’s position “may have been prudent,” the report says, “it did not duly take into account the wider background” of policy issues “in which MIT people have traditionally been passionate leaders.”

Already legislators have introduced a draft of “Aaron’s Law” in Congress to address some of the current legal code’s shortcomings. The report says the school now has to consider whether they should now take on that advocacy role. You can read the full report here (PDF).