MIT president appoints Hal Abelson to investigate university's role in Aaron Swartz's prosecution

MIT president Rafael Reif sent out a university-wide email yesterday announcing an investigation into the school's involvement in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz. He's appointed MIT professor Hal Abelson, a founding director of Creative Commons, who worked with Aaron, "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" and has pledged to "share the report with the MIT community when I receive it."

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.

MIT president calls for "thorough analysis" of school's involvement with Swartz


    1. No it isn’t.

      There are many lessons to learn and apply here:

      For network operators, when to cooperate with the Feds and when to ask them to fuck off. 

      For our country: how to get our prosecutors to stop using their jobs as stepping stones for other positions, and stop trying to score scalps. 

      We need this. 

      1. ‘Network operators’ will almost never tell the Feds to just fuck off. This is partially the reason why the internet has grown into a government surveillance playground with a robust future just about wrapping up in Utah.

        1. I am a network operator. I used to be a sysadmin at MIT. Not calling the feds is very much an option, one I am much more likely to exercise from now on. 

  1. It’s worth noting that Hal Abelson has tried to help young people caught in previous hacker witch hunts. He is the perfect man for this investigation, and it goes a long way to show that Dr. Reif’s statement here is more than just PR.  

    1.  I think there is definitely value in MIT making the public aware of the events that transpired.  And I think they are making an effort to do so.  That is by itself commendable.  In an era of large institutions being unable to admit any fault or even acknowledge the existence of problems, for MIT to make an effort at all to shoulder the burden of their own responsibility speaks well of the school.  Accountability is a dirty word in our America.  And that needs to change.  I am glad to see one institution at least making an effort to return to an age in which responsibility was paramount.

  2. It is heart-breakingly tragic that it required Swartz’ death in order to get this investigation going, but putting Professor Abselson in charge encourages me to think that, at last, it’s being taken seriously.

  3. Cory, I just wanted to thank you for the reporting. Out of impulse, I wished you would comment on all the news and reblogs. After some thought, I came to the opinion that it is very considerate of you not to comment from a personal perspective. Later, maybe.

    Thank you.

    Condolences to everyone who knew Aaron.

    1.  Sorry for the diversion, but I just have to ask about your user name. I used to watch Luther Blissett play football for Watford in the 70’s. Is that the referent?

      1. Yes. And no. And then, maybe. Have you seen us only in Watford, or also in Milano? Or maybe on youtube? Hm, reminds me to look up how to attach vids in disqus. Oh, and sorry for the pixelvomit on tehtubez, can’t help it.

        1.  Ah, yes – I remember running across “Luther Blissett” the authors(?) a while ago, and being puzzled then. That was pre-wikipedia – now I’ve got all the background, thx…

  4. I wish he’d used “activism” instead of “idealism.”

    The concept of “activist” as a legitimate state of being and action is so, so rare in mainstream American life.

      1. Abelson’s integrity is beside-the-point. The fact that he works for MIT makes him a poor candidate to investigate MIT. A truly impartial investigation requires an outside investigator. That’s true whether you’re talking about MIT, corporations, police departments, the government, etc.

        1. See below. Abelson has specifically stepped forward to protect young hackers from overzealous prosecution in past incidents. 

  5. I strongly agree with “ocschwar” — I studied under Prof Abelson, and he has always had a strong “learning by doing” ethic. Considering that he worked with Mr Swartz, I can easily believe he’ll do the right thing.

    Back when I was a high school “urchin,” people who wanted to learn Computer Science would “break into” the MIT AI Lab (by begging someone inside) and then sitting down at a Lisp Machine and hacking it. I did that. I wasn’t prosecuted. (I wasn’t celebrated, either. I’m nowhere near as smart or as good looking at Gerry Sussman.)

    Later, I went to MIT, took Hal’s course, learned everything I could. Still using it thirty years later. Hal’s course, and the extra-curricular activities, I count as my biggest benefits from my MIT undergrad education.

  6. “Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT”. A friend indicates his dad was a consultant for MIT, and Aaron a frequent visitor, noticed by staff. I guess that’s no news, just an independent corroboration.

    1. In order to count for this context, an affiliation needs to be something MIT can use for disciplinary action instead of taking legal action. There wasn’t anything with Aaron Swartz’s case, however.

  7. While I can see the reasons that an independent investigation might be worthwhile, Hal Abelson is a name to conjure with.

    He’s not JUST “a founding director of Creative Commons, who worked with Aaron”.
    – He’s also a founding director of the Free Software Foundation.
    – He’s also a director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (though I don’t see him listed in their board members on their site).
    – He teaches “Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier”.
    – He was involved in Andrew Huang’s book “Hacking the XBox”
    – He was involved in Keith Winstein’s Perl DeCSS script.

    He is not just the perfect choice, but as a member of the MIT Press Management Board, he’s quite possibly also the only choice.

  8. You (and others) have provided an impressive list of Abelson’s accomplishments. However, none of those accomplishments address the fundamental conflict of interest that exists in having a member of an organization investigate that organization.

    Independence is not merely a desirable quality for an impartial investigation, it’s a *necessary* one.

    1.  It’s not just the conflict of interest because he works for the same institution. He’s not impartial and is completely biased at the get-go by being a founder of Creative Commons with the same copyleftist views as Lessig, Doctorow, and Swartz, their protege. That’s hardly an impartial investigation, but I guess that notion isn’t something any ethics-free hacker looks for in this case — they just want the most biased cheerleader they can find to see if they can cook up a case against the prosecutor.

      MIT is described over and over as having the most open system in the US and the most lenient policy toward hackers. Yet they — and Lessig — felt Swartz crossed a line.

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