MIT report on Aaron Swartz's prosecution is out, and it's a "whitewash"

MIT's report on its involvement in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz (PDF) has been published. The report does not apportion any blame to the university for Swartz's prosecution, stating the the university operated as a "neutral party."

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Aaron's partner, vigorously disputes the report's findings, calling it a whitewash, pointing out that MIT provided significant aid to the federal prosecutors who chased Aaron over downloading technical aritcles (which he was entitled to see) from its network, but refused to supply the same documents to the defense team, who desperately needed them. This makes MIT's claim of "neutrality" ring false.

Further, Larry Lessig has posted some preliminary thoughts on MIT's position, pointing out that it turned on a question of authorized or unauthorized access, and that the report says MIT never told the prosecutors that Aaron's access was "unauthorized," suggesting that the prosecutors knew they had no case.

MIT’s behavior 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."

TarenSK | MIT report is a whitewash. My statement in response.

(Image: Aaron Swartz memorial graffiti by Brooklyn Graffiti artist BAMN, Almonroth/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

Notable Replies

  1. The report seemed quite thorough and even-handed to me, but I don't have a blog dedicated to projecting Swartz's suicide on others, as does TarenSK (Although I research at MIT, so bias is bias). Nevertheless there are some critical facts in the MIT report that I haven't seen mentioned. First, MIT didn't "call the Feds", they asked Cambridge Police to help investigate a series of mysterious, camouflaged laptops plugged into their network and an anonymous character sneaking about the network closets at MIT guarding his face from the security cameras. Nothing unreasonable there. Second, it didn't request prosecution and told the prosecutor that it was seeking no punishment.

    The report is quite clear, and I recommend people actually read it.

  2. I'm going to take the time to read the report tonight, but I don't need to do so before bristling at the accusation that it's a "whitewash." I know Hal Abelson. Whitewash is not Abelson's stock in trade.

  3. I think it would be more useful to discuss the substantive issues, rather than accusing Boing Boing of bias. I've known Abelson for as long as I've known Aaron, and I was surprised by this report.

    The substantive issue raised by TSK and Lessig is that the report characterizes MIT as "neutral" in its approach to the parties in the suit. But MIT supplied -- at its discretion, without any legal compulsion -- useful documents to the prosecution, and denied those documents to the defense, who had asked for them and needed them to keep Aaron out of jail.

    That fact -- not in dispute -- makes the claim of neutrality hard to credit.

    Add to this the also undisputed fact that MIT intervened in the effort to see Aaron's Secret Service file:

    Something quite without precedent, and MIT emerges as even more partisan. As Ed Felten pointed out:

    the claim that MIT wanted to ensure the documents were appropriately redacted is absurd on its face (the Secret Service is the among the most aggressive redacters in the FOIA league-tables). It's much more likely that they wanted to get out in front of the negative publicity the documents will generate based on MIT's participation in Aaron's prosecution.

  4. Nobody commits an irrational act like suicide "for reasons". I know many people think that Swartz was unfairly treated (myself included), but the exact same reasons that psychologists and psychiatrists tell friends and family of people that committed suicide that they shouldn't blame themselves makes the "MIT made Swartz kill himself" argument invalid.

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