By remaining neutral during the federal prosecution of the Internet activist Aaron Swartz, the Massachusetts Institute Technology may have failed to "demonstrate the leadership we pride ourselves on" on issues involving information technology, open access, and "dealing wisely with the risks of computer abuse," according to an MIT internal investigation.
"The world looks to MIT to be at the forefront of these areas," wrote the investigators in a report released on Tuesday. "Looking back at the Aaron Swartz case, the world didn’t see leadership."
Mr. Swartz, then a research fellow at Harvard University, in 2011 became the subject of federal prosecution for computer crimes he allegedly committed on the MIT campus. Authorities said the young programmer downloaded millions of scholarly articles from the digital archive JSTOR by connecting a laptop computer to the university network via a wiring closet in the basement of a campus building.
Facing 13 felony charges and possible prison time, Mr. Swartz committed suicide in January. He was 26.
Shortly after Mr. Swartz’s death, L. Rafael Reif, president of MIT, enlisted Harold Abelson, a computer-science professor with bona fides in the open-access community, to lead an investigation into the university’s involvement in Mr. Swartz’s case. Mr. Abelson conducted the investigation alongside Peter A. Diamond, an emeritus professor of economics, and Andrew Grosso, a former federal prosecutor specializing in Internet law who has no affiliation with the university.
Their 182-page report, which draws on interviews with more than 50 people as well as a review of thousands of pages of documents, is an effort to put speculation to rest by establishing a definitive accounting of the decisions made by MIT officials in relation to the Swartz saga.
Mr. Abelson and the report’s co-authors found that university officials did not "target" Mr. Swartz or encourage the federal authorities to pursue an aggressive case against him.
The report affirms, however, that MIT did not advocate for leniency or otherwise intervene on Mr. Swartz’s behalf, even though he was a research fellow at Harvard and a champion of values shared by many on the MIT campus.
The university "was not consulted about its opinion about appropriate charges or punishment, and it did not offer any," according to a summary of the findings.
Mr. Reif interpreted the investigation as clearing university officials of any wrongdoing. "This report confirms that members of the MIT community involved in the Swartz event acted appropriately," the president said during a phone call with reporters on Tuesday.
Criticism of ‘Neutrality’ Stance
Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School and a friend of Mr. Swartz, said MIT officials had committed wrongdoing by doing nothing to deter federal prosecutors. "’Neutrality’ is one of those empty words that somehow has achieved sacred and context-free acceptance," wrote Mr. Lessig on his blog after the Abelson report was released. But, he added, "there are obviously plenty of contexts in which to be ‘neutral’ is simply to be wrong."
Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Mr. Swartz’s partner, released a statement challenging the notion of MIT’s neutrality. "The fact is that all MIT had to do was say publicly, ‘We don’t want this prosecution to go forward,’" she said, and the prosecutors "would have had no case."
It is "valid" to criticize the university’s neutral stance on the charges brought against Mr. Swartz, said Mr. Reif, but the university "recognized the government had its job to do in upholding the law."
However, the report notes that strict adherence to the letter of the law has not always been a prevailing value at MIT, which not only tolerates but "celebrates hacker culture."
"Our admission tours and first-year orientation salute a culture of creative disobedience where students are encouraged to explore secret corners of the campus, commit good-spirited acts of vandalism within informal but broadly—although not fully—understood rules, and resist restrictions that seem arbitrary or capricious," the report says.
One person interviewed about MIT’s role in the Swartz affair, identified as a "distinguished alumnus," told investigators that the university "seemed to be operating according to the letter of the law, but not according to the letter of the heart."
Mr. Abelson and his co-authors take care not to overstep their mandate by making recommendations. The report does, however, include a soul-searching section in which the authors pose a series of questions intended to guide conversation about potential reforms.
For example, the university might equip itself to respond to possible cybercrimes without immediately calling outside authorities. In the case of Mr. Swartz, a call from MIT police officials to the Cambridge Police Department led, inadvertently, to the involvement of a U.S. Secret Service agent. As a consequence, a federal agency became involved in the case before MIT had even determined whether the suspect was a student or not.
"It is arguable that law enforcement involving cybercrime incidents should be an area where MIT has its own special capabilities," says the report.
Having legal counsel with a specialty in computer crimes on retainer might also help the university navigate its dealings with agents and lawyers on both sides of such an investigation from the outset, the authors added.
"There was apparently no ready access to outside criminal-law expertise in the rush of events the day the laptop was discovered," they wrote. In addition, there were "some gaps" in the university’s "policies and practices around electronic records" that resulted in federal agents’ collecting more records than they might have been able to obtain under different conditions.
Protecting a ‘Hacking Tradition’
The university may have an interest in installing protocols that enable it to deal sympathetically with a person like Mr. Swartz.
Mr. Swartz was not an MIT student, but he may as well have been. Precocious at every stage of his short life, he was renowned as a brilliant computer programmer by age 14. As he entered his adult years, he acquired a taste for political activism.
The wiring-closet caper was not the first time he had drawn attention from federal authorities; several years earlier, he had downloaded millions of documents from Pacer, a database of federal court records that charges users for access.
The MIT campus is crawling with young men and women capable of applying their ambition and savvy toward similarly cavalier projects, and the university could do more to educate its students about the stakes—legal and ethical—of breaking existing laws, Mr. Abelson and his colleagues wrote.
At the same time, "This entire episode may create a chilling effect for those students contemplating exploits that may push the bounds of their and society’s knowledge, but will also take them to places where the conventional rules say they are not supposed to be," says the report. "How can we prevent a robust hacking tradition from becoming a casualty of the Aaron Swartz tragedy?"
Mr. Reif, in a letter addressed to the MIT community, said he had taken steps toward convening discussions around that question and other issues raised by the report.
The university will conduct a review of its "policies on the collection, provision, and retention of electronic records," he wrote. The president also invited the university’s senior leadership council to propose other policy changes by the end of the fall semester.
In the meantime, Mr. Reif has directed the provost and the chair of the faculty to "design a process of community engagement" that will allow students, alumni, faculty and staff members, and trustees "to explore these subjects together this fall and shape the best course for MIT."