MIT Report Faults Neutrality in Case of Internet Activist

Boston — The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while maintaining a “neutral” stance toward the prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, failed to live up to its commitment to the free exchange of ideas, a report found.

MIT didn’t take into account that Swartz was a “well-known contributor to Internet technology,” according to Wednesday’s report, led by professor Hal Abelson. Swartz, 26, killed himself in January as he awaited trial on charges he broke into the school’s network to download millions of research articles.

The university, which prides itself on promoting openness, and the U.S. Justice Department have faced criticism for their roles in pursuing Swartz, considered a hero by many in the movement to make information available for free.

The law used to pursue him was “poorly drafted” when “applied to modern computing,” according to the report.

“MIT’s position may have been prudent, but it did not duly take into account the wider background of information policy against which the prosecution played out and in which MIT people have traditionally been passionate leaders,” the report said.

While the report presents an opportunity to “learn and lead” on questions of open access, intellectual property and ethics, it also dispels myths about the case, Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, said Wednesday in a letter posted on the school’s website. Two days after Swartz’s suicide, Reif asked Abelson, a computer-science professor who has been a prominent advocate of maintaining free access to software, to lead the review.

“It makes clear that MIT did not target Aaron Swartz, we did not seek federal prosecution, punishment or jail time, and we did not oppose a plea bargain,” Reif said. “I am confident that MIT’s decisions were reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith.”

The MIT administration will conduct a review of polices on electronic records and convene a group of student, alumni, faculty and staff this fall to explore the issues raised in the report, Reif said.

Swartz’s girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, called MIT anything but neutral in the case. The school’s lawyers gave prosecutors access to witnesses and evidence while refusing access to Swartz’s attorneys, she said.

“All MIT had to do was say publicly, ‘We don’t want this case to go forward,’ ” Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. “MIT’s behavior throughout the case was reprehensible, and this report is quite frankly a whitewash.”

In a blog posting, Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and Internet activist, faulted MIT’s position of neutrality, saying it had intervened in an earlier case, involving an MIT student, and that it could have told prosecutors that Swartz was authorized to have access to the research under the school’s open-access policies.

“ ‘Neutrality’ does not justify failing to pick up the phone, and telling the prosecutor, ‘Hey, in fact, his access was authorized,’ ” Lessig wrote. “Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe the prosecutor would have stayed the course. But then that would have been (yet another) failure of the prosecution, not MIT’s.”

On a conference call with reporters, Abelson said the inquiry was conducted independently of the MIT administration over more than six months. Those working on the 180-page report interviewed about 50 people, including members of law enforcement, Swartz’s lawyers and MIT faculty, and reviewed 10,000 pages of documents, he said.

“We tried to give a full account of the facts,” Abelson said. Until his arrest in January 2011, MIT was unaware that Swartz was the person downloading information, according to the report.

The university didn’t issue a statement about Swartz’s prosecution or advocate on his behalf, contrary to the wishes of his family and legal team and two faculty members, the report said.

Swartz’s father, Robert, a consultant to the MIT Media Lab, asked the school to make a “settlement” with his son, similar to one reached with the organization that maintained the digital library of academic articles he had downloaded. Swartz complained that his son’s defense team couldn’t get assistance from MIT, such as access to documents and employees, and the university violated his rights by turning over items to the government, the report said.

“Why are you destroying my son?” Robert Swartz said in a meeting with MIT officials in September 2011, according to the MIT review.

In an emailed statement, Robert Swartz said the report showed that MIT, which had “a moral obligation to advocate in the legal case against Aaron,” made “numerous mistakes that warrant further examination and significant changes.” He said he welcomed Reif’s call for further review and asked to participate himself.