The four lamest excuses in MIT’s report on Aaron Swartz


The late Aaron Swartz (Noah Berger/Reuters)

MIT released its report on the university's handling of Aaron Swartz prosecution Tuesday. Swartz took his own life in January while facing multiple Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) felony charges relating to an attempt to download scholarly articles from academic database JSTOR in bulk through the MIT network.

The 100-plus pages report lays out the institution's actions and decisions from the initial investigation into the unusual JSTOR activity through Swartz's suicide. The report ultimately concludes that MIT didn't do anything particularly wrong, other than letting attempts to be neutral cloud its view of the larger ethical issues brought up by the case.

Others have been less charitable toward the report and the actions it describes. Before the report was released, Swartz's father released a statement saying he expected "MIT will recognize that it made significant mistakes in how it handled Aaron’s situation." After its release, Swartz's former partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman released a statement calling MIT’s behavior during the case "reprehensible," and terming the report "quite frankly a whitewash."

The report offers a number of reasons for MIT's passive reaction to Swartz's prosecution in the months before his suicide. None of them are very convincing.

1. Prosecutors said that Swartz bringing MIT personnel into hearings and trials was like re-victimizing a rape survivor.

According to the report, the lead prosecutor told MIT it was being "systematically re-victimized" when Swartz involved MIT staff in hearings and the trial, and analogized attacks on MIT's conduct during the investigation to "attacking a rape victim based on sleeping with other men."

2. MIT thought speaking out on Swartz's behalf would "make circumstances worse" for him.

The report claims MIT's decision not to publicly comment on the court case stemmed from conversation with the lead prosecutors that left them with "a good faith belief" that the institution's opinion wouldn't affect prosecutorial decisions, and public statements "might make circumstances worse for Aaron Swartz."

The institution says it did inform the prosecution that it was not seeking punishment for Swartz, and did inform the defense that it wasn't seeking any civil remedy, but chose not to make any public statements to that effect. In contrast, JSTOR publicly said early on in the case that it had "no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter."

3. MIT claims its community didn't care about the case until Swartz's suicide.

Except for the period immediately following his arrest, the institution says, few students, faculty, or alumni expressed concerns to the university about the case until Swartz's death. Besides an inquiry from the incoming director at the MIT Media Lab suggesting they might consider it a "family matter," the review panel reports being aware of only two other faculty individuals who attempted to change the institution's response to the case.

4. MIT ignored virtually all circumstances surrounding the case to "stay neutral."

Showing a hint of remorse, MIT acknowledges a number of factors that it might have taken into account in its decision-making process, but didn't:

[T]hat the defendant was an accomplished and well-known contributor to Internet technology; that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is a poorly drafted and questionable criminal law as applied to modern computing, one that affects the Internet community as a whole and is widely criticized; and that the United States government was pursuing an overtly aggressive prosecution.

The report ends noting that in its response to the situation "MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership" on information technology issues it prides itself on.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Timothy B. Lee · July 30, 2013