Soul Searching

In Evaluating Its Actions in the Aaron Swartz Case, MIT Pleads ‘Neutrality’

"MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership that we pride ourselves on."
Mr. Swartz (Photo: Wikipedia)

Mr. Swartz (Photo: Wikipedia)

Today MIT released the results of its investigation–led by MIT professor Hal Abelson–into the university’s actions in the controversial case of Aaron Swartz, evaluating the facts and ultimately denying wrong-doing. The report suggests that the school didn’t target Mr. Swartz, but it didn’t go out of its way to do a damn thing for him, either.

The report, which is almost 200 pages long, outlines what MIT did when and outlines alternate courses. For example, MIT could have gone to greater lengths to provide documents to the defense, weighed in on prosecution publicly as JSTOR did or taken into account what a shoddy law the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is. Perhaps most painfully, as Lawrence Lessig argues, MIT could’ve cast doubt that Mr. Swartz’s access really was “unauthorized.”

But the authors deny there was any one thing MIT could’ve done different that would’ve made it all okay: “Even today, with the benefit of hindsight, we have not found a silver bullet with which MIT could have simply prevented the tragedy.”

Yes, there are plenty of excuses made for why MIT did what it did. As Groklaw points out, though, the report does recognize that the tech world holds MIT to a higher standard, and while the case revolved around issues (like the CFAA and excessive punishment for “hacking” offenses) where MIT should be a leader, the university basically stepped back and said, “Not it!”

“If the Review Panel is forced to highlight just one issue for reflection, we would choose to look to the MIT administration’s maintenance of a “neutral” hands-off attitude that regarded the prosecution as a legal dispute to which it was not a party. This attitude was complemented by the MIT community’s apparent lack of attention to the ruinous collision of hacker ethics, open-source ideals, questionable laws, and aggressive prosecutions that was playing out in its midst.”

“By responding as we did, MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership that we pride ourselves on. Not meeting, accepting, and embracing the responsibility of leadership can bring disappointment,” the authors add, calling the case “a textbook example of the very controversies where the world seeks MIT’s insight and leadership.”

No kidding. If you want to be a culturally influential institution, a bureaucratic refusal to take sides doesn’t really hack it. MIT’s actions sound more worthy of Wal-Mart than one of America’s great intellectual strongholds. The authors also admit that the whole incident raises concerns about MIT’s traditionally “hacker” friendly culture.

The accompanying letter from President L. Rafael Reif, however, takes a far more rah-rah (one might even say ass-cover-y!) spin. He writes that, “From studying this review of MIT’s role, I am confident that MIT’s decisions were reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith,” and adds it “sets the record straight by dispelling widely circulated myths,” refuting the ideas that MIT sought to press charges and fought against a plea deal.

Mr. Swartz’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, isn’t buying it. She’s released a statement calling the report a “whitewash” and arguing:

“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.”

She compares MIT’s response to JSTOR’s saying they didn’t want to prosecute, and concludes that, “Aaron would be alive today if MIT had acted as JSTOR did. MIT had a moral imperative to do so.”

Meanwhile, the university has been fighting Wired‘s FOIA request to see Mr. Swartz’s Secret Service file.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com