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.
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Noah Swartz writes, "Jie Qi from the MIT Media Lab and Bunnie Huang of Hacking the Xbox fame have teamed up to make LED stickers! Using adhesive copper tape you can turn any notebook into a fantastical light up circuit sketchbook. I got to play with them myself at FOO Camp and they're as easy to use as the look, and in the time since Ji and Bunnie have gone back to the lab and made a number of sensor and controller stickerss that give you loads of options of what to make. They're running a fundraiser to do a big production run of these over at Crowdsupply, and while they have funding I'm sure lots of people will be kicking themselves if they don't manage to grab some of these while they can."
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After a long wrangle, and no thanks to MIT, the Secret Service has begun to honor the court order that requires it to release Aaron Swartz's files. The first 100 pages -- albeit heavily redacted -- were just released. Kevin Poulsen, the Wired reporter who filed the Freedom of Information Act request that liberated the files, has posted some preliminary analysis of them. The Feds were particularly interested in the "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto," a document Aaron helped to write in 2008. The manifesto -- and subsequent statements by Aaron -- make the case that access to scientific and scholarly knowledge is a human right. The full Aaron Swartz files run 14,500 pages, according to the Secret Service's own estimate.
I was interested to note that much of the analysis of Swartz's materials was undertaken by SAIC, the mystery-shrouded, massive private military/government contractor that is often described as the largest privately held company in the world.
Update: Jake Appelbaum corrects me: "I've been reading what is released of one of the files for Aaron. I
think that SAIC in these documents means 'Special Agent In Charge' and
isn't actually the motherfuckers at SAIC.
Reading this report makes my fucking blood boil,
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A large group of "security researchers, academics, and lawyers" have signed onto a letter to Congress demanding that lawmakers enact "Aaron's Law," which would reform the antiquated and terrible Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which US prosecutors claim makes violating online terms of service into a felony punishable by imprisonment. This is the law that was used to persecute Aaron Swartz, who was accused of violating terms of service by automatically downloading academic articles, rather than accessing them one at a time. The federal prosecutor threatened Aaron with 35 years in prison.
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Stephen Heymann is the assistant US attorney who made it his mission to see Aaron Swartz sent to prison for violating terms of service by downloading scientific papers with an automatic script, rather than individually, by hand. Heymann spent a lot of time working with MIT on this -- Aaron used MIT's network to allegedly violate the terms of service -- and in his efforts to get MIT to stay involved in the face of public criticism for their cooperation, he compared Aaron to a rapist who blames his victim. Aaron's lawyers have asked the DoJ to investigate Heymann for breaches of professional standards.
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The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Legal Director Cindy Cohn writes in detail about the MIT report on its involvement in Aaron Swartz's prosecution. She criticizes MIT's claim to neutrality in the matter, showing the way that the university went to great, voluntary lengths to help the government prosecute Aaron, and eventually siding with the government in motions to keep the evidence that it turned over to the prosecutor admissable. Cohn shows that MIT's likeliest motivation for this was saving face. Ultimately, Cohn says, "MIT's actions in helping the government prosecute Aaron are shameful, and betray the institution’s commitment to technologists."
Update: Cohn wrote in to add, "The prosecution turned on whether Aaron's access to JSTOR via the MIT network was 'unauthorized' and MIT had tremendous power over which way that decision went in the case. The report acknowledges this but simply repeats MIT's assertion that it didn't actually realize it without criticism or noting how unreasonable (or not believable) this assertion is. The CFAA isn't unknown or unknowable and the folks handling this are in the General Counsel's office. 'Unauthorized access' is the statutory language. And of course MIT's belief that Aaron's access might be unauthorized (as in violation of MIT's policies or maybe JSTOR's) is why they called the police and why he was arrested at their instigation. The idea that after they called the cops they didn't understand what law might have been broken or why their network openness and policies mattered to that determination, such that they never even volunteered the information or asked the prosecution for its theory or more importantly gave information about this to the defense, just isn't believable."
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Aaron Swartz. Photo: Reuters.John Schwartz at the New York Times
"A long-awaited report released Tuesday by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the university made mistakes but engaged in no wrongdoing in the case of Aaron Swartz, a renowned programmer and charismatic technology activist who committed suicide in January while facing a federal trial on charges of hacking into the M.I.T. computer network."
In an open letter, MIT's president said the report “makes clear that M.I.T. did not ‘target’ Aaron Swartz, we did not seek federal prosecution, punishment or jail time, and we did not oppose a plea bargain,” and that the university “acted appropriately.” Read the rest
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.
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Ed Felten comments on the news that MIT has moved to delay the release of the Secret Service files on Aaron Swartz:
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It seems unlikely that MIT will find information redactable under FOIA that hasn’t already been redacted by the Secret Service.
But there are two things that MIT’s filing will more likely achieve. First, it will delay the disclosure of facts about MIT’s role in the Swartz investigation. Second, it will help MIT prepare its public-relations response to whatever is in the documents.
My friend Aaron Swartz's suicide, just over six months ago, brought attention to MIT's role in his prosecution over downloading scholarly articles from their network. JSTOR, the service that hosted the files Aaron was accused of downloading, dropped its case against him, and it was widely reported that the only reason the Justice Department was able to go ahead with its threats of decades of time in prison for Aaron was MIT's insistence on pressing the case against him. MIT's administration was so shaken by the negative publicity following Aaron's death that they commissioned professor Hal Abelson (a good guy, in my experience) to investigate the university's role in his prosecution.
Now, though, MIT has blocked a Freedom of Information Act suit by Wired's Kevin Poulsen aimed at forcing the Secret Service to release their files on Aaron. A court recently ordered the Secret Service to stop screwing around and release Aaron's file, but before that could happen, MIT intervened, arguing that if the world could see the files, they would know the names of the MIT employees who insisted that Aaron deserved to go to jail for what amounted to checking too many books out of the library. MIT argues that its employees would potentially face retaliation (though not, presumably, threats of felony prosecutions, million-dollar fines, and decades in prison) if their names were known.
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Molly sez, "For the past two years I've been researching activist uses of distributed denial of service actions. I just finished my masters thesis on the subject (for the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT). Guiding this work is the overarching question of how civil disobedience and disruptive activism can be practiced in the current online space. The internet acts as a vital arena of communication, self expression, and interpersonal organizing. When there is a message to convey, words to get out, people to organize, many will turn to the internet as the zone of that activity.
"Online, people sign petitions, investigate stories and rumors, amplify links and videos, donate money, and show their support for causes in a variety of ways. But as familiar and widely accepted activist tools--petitions, fundraisers, mass letter-writing, call-in campaigns and others--find equivalent practices in the online space, is there also room for the tactics of disruption and civil disobedience that are equally familiar from the realm of street marches, occupations, and sit-ins? This thesis grounds activist DDOS historically, focusing on early deployments of the tactic as well as modern instances to trace its development over time, both in theory and in practice.
"Through that examination, as well as tool
design and development, participant identity, and state and corporate responses, this thesis presents an account of the development and current state of activist DDOS actions. It ends by presenting an analytical framework for the analysis of activist DDOS actions."
This is a subject I've given some thought to -- after reading the introduction to Molly's thesis, I'm convinced that this is something I need to read in full. Read the rest
The MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Group has shipped version 2.0 of Scratch, the justly famed and much-loved programming language for kids. Scratch makes it easy to create powerful simulations and games, even for small kids (basically, if you can read, you're ready for Scratch). The new version of Scratch runs right in a browser (no downloads or installs required), and is remarkable in its polish and power to excite. The programming environment is embedded in a sharing and shareable community, with millions of Scratch projects ready to be downloaded and remixed. It's just
With Scratch, you can program your own interactive stories, games, and animations — and share your creations with others in the online community.
Scratch helps young people learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively — essential skills for life in the 21st century.
Share with others around the world
(via O'Reilly Radar)
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On Monday, the Boston Marathon was bombed. On Monday night I was feeling blessed and thankful to not know anyone directly affected by the bombs. But on Tuesday morning I woke up to an email from my colleague Chris Peterson at the MIT Center for Civic Media. Chris's family are friends with the family who lost their son Martin in the attack. He sent us photos of he and his brothers playing with their children and the reality was all too close. It is devastating. This family will have a long road of healing in front of them that most of us cannot even begin to imagine.
My friends at MIT and I have spent the past couple of days helping Chris build a site to raise money for the Richard family. We are coordinating with St Marks Area Main Street, a non-profit community organization based in Dorchester, MA, where the family lives. The site is made with the support of the family and their spokesperson. 100% of funds raised goes to the family.
Please give what you can. It's the very least we can do to come together in solidarity with these innocent people and help them to rebuild their lives in the wake of senseless violence. In the photo on the site Martin is holding a sign he made in school that says "Peace". Let us spread that peace.
The Richard Family Fund
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Here's Mitch Resnick of the MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Group
(whence the kids' programming language Scratch
comes) doing a TedX talk about the role of programming in education.
: "Back when I was a graduate student there, I extracted security keys from the original Microsoft Xbox video game console. I still remember the crushing disappointment of receiving a letter from MIT legal repudiating any association with my work, effectively leaving me on my own to face Microsoft." Read the rest
Noah Swartz (brother of Aaron) writes, "The MIT society for open science has made a petition
asking for an apology from MIT: (we understand that there is an investigation, but the thought process is to put more pressure on the institution) A number of hackerspaces are going to work
on projects that Aaron worked on or that are in the spirit of his work. Read the rest
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
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