It's been nearly a year since my friend Aaron Swartz killed himself, and it's a year his friends and family have passed by trying to make sense of his death and trying to decide what to do about his legacy. His father, Bob, and I have spoken several times since then, and I've often returned to his insights when I've thought about Aaron.
Bob has done a long interview with Boston Magazine about Aaron and the aftermath of his death. He's especially damning of MIT's role in Aaron's death, and in the inadequacy of MIT's internal investigation following it.
For example: Just days after JSTOR first noticed Aaron’s bulk download and notified MIT, an MIT Information Systems & Technology staffer wrote an email explaining that the university did not require user authentication to access JSTOR. Yet the bulk of the allegations against Aaron dealt with him “exceeding authorized access” to the MIT network under the CFAA. “At no time, either before or after the arrest of Aaron Swartz, did anyone from the prosecution inquire as to whether Aaron Swartz had authorized access to the MIT network,” Abelson wrote. When it came to the most fundamental question in the case—was Aaron authorized to access MIT’s network or not?—MIT maintains that the feds simply never asked.
And MIT never spoke up.
MIT has maintained that its policy in Aaron’s case was to remain neutral—which in practice meant, “do nothing.” This was not without precedent. MIT had taken a similar stance when its students had tangled with law enforcement, and Aaron was not even a student.
Bob maintains that in Aaron’s case, MIT’s “neutrality” was in fact an abdication. By its silence, Bob says, the administration betrayed its mission. MIT has consistently sold itself as a leader on open access to scholarship—its professors create and share curricula over OpenCourseWare, and in 2009, they voted to make all of their scholarly articles available on the Web. Even as Heymann pursued Aaron for downloading millions of journal articles on MIT’s campus, the university was touting the launch of MITx, a program that would provide free online courses to millions of students around the world.
While claiming neutrality, MIT’s IS & T employees initially handed over many records to Heymann without a subpoena. Even later, Heymann and the Secret Service were permitted to call or email any staffer at will, an unusual privilege. In those exchanges, MIT staffers, either wittingly or unwittingly, helped Heymann build his case. What MIT describes as neutrality looks to Bob an awful lot like complicity with the prosecution. Abelson seemed to agree, writing that MIT’s dispassionate approach, in fact, “was not neutral in outcomes.”
Losing Aaron [Janelle Nanos/Boston Magazine]