RIP

MIT Launches Investigation Into Overzealous Prosecution Following Suicide of Hacker Hero Aaron Swartz

"The reason they threw the book at him wasn’t to teach him a lesson, but to make a point to the entire Cambridge hacker community."
aaronswartz

Mr. Swartz

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will launch an investigation into its role in the suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, as recriminations mounted after the 26-year-old programmer hanged himself in his Brooklyn home on Friday.

“I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many,” said MIT President L. Rafael Reif in a written statement. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”

Mr. Swartz, a gifted programmer and Reddit alumus who helped develop the technology underlying the RSS feed as a 14-year-old, had been facing federal computer fraud charges after using MIT networks to download 4 million files from JSTOR, the academic database. Those charges, filed in July 2011, had loomed large for Mr. Swartz in the days leading up to his death, with The Wall Street Journal reporting that his negotiations with prosecutors had broken down in recent days:

“The government indicated it might only seek seven years at trial, and was willing to bargain that down to six to eight months in exchange for a guilty plea, a person familiar with the matter said. But Mr. Swartz didn’t want to do jail time.”

While MIT wasn’t directly involved in the government’s case, it was widely believed that the university played a role in allowing the government to move forward with its aggressive charges. Anonymous was among those to point fingers at MIT in the days after Mr. Swartz’s death, defacing at least two university websites with messages calling “for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all.”

As AllThingsD notes, the fact that Professor Hal Abelson, a free software advocate, was named to lead MIT’s investigation makes a strong statement. But if MIT was fast to get out in front of accusations that the university was complicit in the case against Mr. Swartz, it wasn’t the only institution to come in for blame.

In an official statement released after his death, Mr. Swartz’s family lay blame with “a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.” Mr. Swartz’s friend, the free speech activist Lawrence Lessig, wrote that Mr. Swartz was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.” Last year, Mr. Lessig’s wife, social activist Bettina Neuefeind organized the website free.aaronsw.com to raise money for Mr. Swartz’s defense.

In a blog post, security expert Alex Stamos, who would have testified as an expert witness on Mr. Swartz’s behalf had the case gone to trial, wrote that the prosecution’s case was largely overblown, arguing that “Aaron did not ‘hack’” the JSTOR website for all reasonable definitions of ‘hack,’” but took advantage of MIT’s and JSTOR’s unusually open systems to download millions of files:

“If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were “wrong”, I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as “inconsiderate”. In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper.”

In support of Mr. Swartz, members of the academic community have been posting hundreds of copyright-protected links to articles on Twitter. Researcher Micah Allen, who called for others to join in the protest on Reddit, wrote:

“a fitting tribute to Aaron might be a mass protest uploading of copyright-protected research articles. Dump them on Gdocs, tweet the link. Think of the great blu-ray encoding protest but on a bigger scale for research articles.” 

Danah Boyd, an assistant professor in media, culture, and communication at New York University, and a friend of Mr. Swartz, said that what angered her most in the wake of Mr. Swartz’s death is that the government chose to make an example of the young activist:

“the reason they threw the book at him wasn’t to teach him a lesson, but to make a point to the entire Cambridge hacker community that they were p0wned. It was a threat that had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with a broader battle over systemic power.”

Others expressed their outrage at the prosecutor they deemed responsible for charges by petitioning the Obama Administration to remove U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office. Posted on Saturday, the petition had more than 12,000 electronic signatures as of this writing, putting it nearly halfway to the threshold of 25,000 signatures which guarantees that the White House will respond.

While outrage at prosecutors often fueled reactions to Mr. Swartz’s passing, others remembered Mr. Swartz as a brilliant and inspiring thinker, and a troubled soul. Former girlfriend recalled Mr. Swartz as a caring partner dogged by demons:

Later, I tried to take care of him while he was being destroyed, from inside and out. I struggled so hard, but not as hard as he did. I told him, time and again, that this was his 20s. It would be better in his 30s. Just wait. Please, just hold on.

And a website dedicated to Mr. Swartz’s memorial was filled with statements to his precociousness, as a technically brilliant programmer, iconoclastic thinker and a crusader for Internet freedom, but also as a generous and devoted friend. The journalist Sarah Lai Stirland recalled the impression a teenaged Mr. Swartz had made: “It was undoubtedly his advanced intellect that set him apart from most of his peers. Aaron expressed the sense that he didn’t fit into the world around him early on.”

Another commenter, Zach Lipton, counted himself in the “awfully large club, of people who found inspiration in Aaron’s amazing mind.” Mr. Swartz’s habit of thrusting himself into public debate wasn’t borne of arrogance, Mr. Lipton wrote:

It was simply pure chutzpah, born of kindness and a genuine desire to help, which he had in droves. He was someone who would see a problem, say, as Sorkin once put it, “I want to be a part of this,” and would throw himself out there to contribute with whatever skills he could. That attitude could, and did, get him into trouble, but it also gave us all a chance to know him and learn from him.

Update: The Department of Justice has dropped its case against Mr. Swartz, as is customary after the death of a defendant.

Follow Patrick Clark on Twitter or via RSS. pclark@observer.com