MIT president Rafael Reif has published an open letter to the academic community offering condolences to the family and friends of Aaron Swartz.He also promised an investigation into MIT’s role in a prosecution that many close to him believe led to Swartz’s death at his own hands on Friday.
Swartz, an activist hacker who faced 30 or more years in jail for hacking charges, never attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
But it was at MIT, while working as a fellow at Harvard’s Safra centre, that Swartz downloaded 4.8 million academic papers from JSTOR, an academic database. (Harvard and MIT have a long history of academic cooperation, with their campuses and facilities more or less open to both institutions’ students and faculties.)
While MIT and JSTOR had an arrangement providing free access to the database on MIT’s network, Swartz’s pace of downloading reportedly brought down JSTOR’s servers, according to the indictment against him, leading them to block MIT’s access to the articles database for several days.
JSTOR and Swartz settled their dispute over his actions, but MIT brought in police to investigate Swartz’s activities, an action which led to Swartz’s prosecution.
MIT’s cooperation with authorities in the case has been controversial on campus.
“What Aaron Swartz did was a clear violation of the rules and protocols of the library and the community,” MIT professor Christopher Capozzola told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2011. “But the penalties in this case, and the sources of those penalties, are really remarkable. These penalties really go against MIT’s culture of breaking down barriers.”
Reif appointed Hal Abelson, a highly respected computer-science professor, to analyse MIT’s response to Swartz’s actions. This appointment is likely to be well-received by Swartz’s supporters. Abelson has been involved in several organisations promoting Internet rights and intellectual freedom—causes which Swartz championed—including Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, the Free Software Foundation, and the centre for Democracy and Technology.
Here’s Reif’s full letter to the MIT community:
To the members of the MIT community:
Yesterday we received the shocking and terrible news that on Friday in New York, Aaron Swartz, a gifted young man well known and admired by many in the MIT community, took his own life. With this tragedy, his family and his friends suffered an inexpressible loss, and we offer our most profound condolences. Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism.
Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.
I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.
I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. 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. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.
I hope we will all reach out to those members of our community we know who may have been affected by Aaron’s death. As always, MIT Medical is available to provide expert counseling, but there is no substitute for personal understanding and support.
With sorrow and deep sympathy,
L. Rafael Reif
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