MIT on Aaron Swartz's Prosecution and Suicide: Don't Look at Us!

College took neutral route, but questions whether it could have or should have helped


ragesoss / Foter / CC BY-SA
credit:ragesoss / Foter / CC BY-SA

Aaron Swartz's suicide, carried out while he faced federal prosecution for accessing Massachusetts Institute of Technology's library and downloading significant amounts of scientific journal data, prompted the college to perform a self-evaluation about the way they handled the situation. Did MIT or anybody at MIT encourage the prosecution of the young open-access activist or take his side? After the review, the university concluded that the college took no action to encourage the Department of Justice's treatment of Swartz. From the Boston Globe:

In a press release, university officials said the report finds that MIT never sought federal prosecution, punishment or jail time, or opposed a plea bargain with Swartz, whose suicide triggered a national debate over whether prosecutors were overzealous in pursuing charges against the computer prodigy.

"I am confident that MIT's decisions were reasonable, appropriate, and made in good faith," MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement. "I have heard from many in our community who believe our actions were proper and justified. Others feel differently, and the review panel identifies alternate paths we could have followed, including becoming more actively involved in the case as it evolved."

MIT's report, readable here (pdf) does ask what the college might have done had it shifted a little bit away from pure neutrality, maybe trying to encourage the Department of Justice to drop the charges down to misdemeanors to openly showing support for Swartz to getting more involved with issues surrounding the ambiguous federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law used to prosecute him (and which friendly legislators are now trying to update to try to scale back prosecutor overreach). Interestingly, none of the discussion points in the paper suggested supporting the Department of Justice's behavior.