MIT Concludes It Did Nothing Improper In Case Of Internet Activist's Aaron Swartz's Suicide — Swartz's Girlfriend Calls 'BS'

Aaron Swartz and Taren Stinebrickner-KauffmanAaron Swartz and Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman

In January, a celebrated Internet activist, Aaron Swartz, committed suicide.

Swartz, who had long battled depression, was being prosecuted for downloading – or stealing – 4.8 million academic papers using MIT’s network from an online service, JSTOR.

Prosecutors charged him with 13 felonies as a result of the hack, which add up to decades in jail. However, Swartz was being offered a plea deal that would only total 4 months behind bars.

Swartz’s family and friends say the prosecution’s aggressive charges were a driving force behind Swartz’s suicide. They also blame MIT for not defending Swartz as the trial unfolded.

Two days after Swartz’s death, MIT’s President L. Rafael Reif asked one of its professors, Hal Abelson, to investigate the school’s involvement in the matter. After reading through 10,000 pages of material and interviewing more than 50 people, the 150-page report has been published.

The report, which was made public this morning, finds that MIT acted fairly.

Abelson summarizes his key findings in the report’s introduction:

  • MIT did not know Aaron Swartz was the person behind the theft of academic papers until his arrest.
  • MIT did not ask for Swartz to be prosecuted. It also did not ask for him not to be prosecuted, despite please from Swartz’s family, lawyers and 2 members of MIT’s faculty. 
  • The report says MIT acted this way because it wanted to remain “neutral.” It also didn’t feel that issuing a statement in support of Swartz would sway prosecutors.

“It makes clear that MIT did not ‘target’ Aaron Swartz, we did not seek federal prosecution, punishment or jail time, and we did not oppose a plea bargain,” MIT President Reif writes of the report.

He also encourages the community to take a hard look at the fifth section of the report, which calls into question the way MIT acted after Swartz’s arrest.

Those include:

  • “What are MIT’s obligations to members of our extended community?: (Swartz’s father was an MIT grad)
  • “Should MIT strengthen its activities in support of open access to scholarly publications?”

Swartz’s girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who found his body in their apartment, vehemently disagrees with the report. 

She says he’d “be alive today if MIT had acted as JSTOR did” against the prosecution. She made a similar statement at Swartz’s memorial service earlier this year.

Here is her statement on the report: 

MIT’s behaviour throughout the case was reprehensible, and this report is quite frankly a whitewash.

Here are the facts: This report claims that MIT was “neutral” — but MIT’s lawyers gave prosecutors total access to witnesses and evidence, while refusing access to Aaron’s lawyers to the exact same witnesses and evidence. That’s not neutral. 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.

And even now, MIT is still stonewalling. Wired reporter Kevin Poulsen FOIA’d the Secret Service’s files on Aaron’s case, and judge ordered them to be released. The only reason they haven’t been is because MIT has filed an objection. If MIT is at all serious about implementing any reforms to stop this kind of tragedy from happening again, it must stop objecting to the release of information about the case.”

Here’s MIT’s full report.

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