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MIT Releases Report on Aaron Swartz Case, Claims “Position of Neutrality”

An MIT review panel found that MIT did nothing wrong during the Aaron Swartz case.

Aaron Swartz

While under federal prosecution that many felt was extreme for his crimes, Aaron Swartz committed suicide earlier this year. MIT has released a report examining their culpability in the matter. It indicates that MIT maintained a “position of neutrality” throughout the proceedings, claiming they neither sought Swartz’s prosecution nor defended him.

The report titled “Report to the President: MIT and the Prosecution of Aaron Swartz” was presented to MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who responded with a letter to the MIT community today.

The key findings of the report state that:

  • The scale of Swartz’s downloading threatened to shut down JSTOR.
  • MIT did not know the identity of the person downloading the JSTOR files until after Swartz’s arrest.
  • MIT did not call the federal authorities, but rather they were brought in by the Cambridge Police.
  • No request was made by MIT that federal charges be pressed against Swartz, nor was the school consulted about the level of punishment.
  • At no point was MIT involved in the negotiations of any plea agreements.
  • MIT maintained a position of neutrality by not issuing any public statements supporting or condemning Swartz. However, MIT did privately tell prosecutors that it shouldn’t think the school was seeking jail time for Swartz.
  • It wasn’t until Swartz’s suicide that there was much demand for MIT to take a position on the case.
  • The MIT faculty were divided on the issue.
  • MIT’s stance of neutrality did not account for the fact that Swartz, “was an accomplished and well-known contributor to Internet technology.” It also did not consider that the law being used to prosecute Swartz, “is a poorly drafted and questionable criminal law as applied to modern computing.” The school also ignored the aggressive extent to which the government was prosecuting Swartz.

That last bullet point seems worth calling attention to. It acknowledges that although MIT remained neutral, there were factors that perhaps shouldn’t have been ignored.

The report also presented the MIT community with questions on what it could have done differently, and what it should consider doing in the future. The questions include whether or not MIT should have in-house experts on staff to deal with computer-related crime. It asks MIT to look at its policies on data storage, collection, and that data’s provision to outside bodies.

Another question proposes a possible change in the MIT curriculum itself to include the legal and ethical issues surrounding the technologies it teaches. In particular, it questions whether MIT should involve itself in the debate over the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act which was one of the laws Swartz was charged with breaking.

You can read the full report and President Reif’s response on the MIT site.

(via MIT News, image via Phillip Stearns)

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Glen is a comedian, writer, husband, and father. He won his third-grade science fair and is a former preschool science teacher, which is a real job.