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.
MIT claims it's afraid the release of Swartz's file will identify the names of MIT people who helped the Secret Service and federal prosecutors pursue felony charges against Swartz for his bulk downloading of academic articles from MIT's network in 2011.
MIT argues that those people might face threats and harassment if their names become public. But it's worth noting that names of third parties are already redacted from documents produced under FOIA.
I'll post MIT's motion here once it's filed.
I have never, in fifteen years of reporting, seen a non-governmental party argue for the right to interfere in a Freedom of Information Act release of government documents. My lawyer has been litigating FOIA for decades, and he's never encountered it either. It's saddening to see an academic institution set this precedent.
I agree with Poulsen. This is a dark day in MIT's history. Today, the administration devalued the reputation of every student, alumnus and faculty member. The "MIT" on your resume is in danger of becoming a source of shame. MIT's stakeholders must demand better of their administration.
MIT Moves to Intervene in Release of Aaron Swartz's Secret Service File [Kevin Poulsen/Wired]