On Sunday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a statement on the untimely death of digital activist and pioneer Aaron Swartz, offering condolences to his friends and family and announcing an investigation into the university's role in his prosecution. "I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years," writes MIT president L. Rafael Reif. "Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT."
The investigation, led by Creative Commons and Free Software Foundation founding director Hal Abelson, a professor at the university, will be focused "a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present." Reif, who became president after Swartz's 2011 indictment, has "asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took."
In interviews with the Wall Street Journal, Swartz's attorney Elliot Peters and girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman say that Swartz's hopes for a plea bargain agreement with the government fell apart the week of his death. Assistant US Attorney Stephen Heymann had insisted last fall that any deal include both prison time and a guilty plea for every count of the indictment. On Wednesday, Heymann refused to discuss any further compromise. Two of Swartz's friends had recently been subpoenaed, and the cost of litigating the case had drained his funds. "It was too hard for him to ask for the help and make that part of his life go public," said Stinebrickner-Kauffman. "One of the things he felt most difficult to fathom was asking people for money."
Swartz and MIT settled civilly after his arrest and release by Cambridge, MA police, but a federal indictment of Swartz for wire fraud, computer fraud, and other charges used evidence obtained by MIT and leaned heavily on Swartz's use of a pseudonym, "Gary Host," on MIT's computer network. In a motion to suppress communication and disclosures from MIT sources, Swartz's attorneys note that MIT turned over evidence it collected to the US Secret Service, who had taken over the investigation two days prior to Swartz's arrest. (The Secret Service's investigative mission includes financial, computer, and telecommunications fraud, with a particular focus on "schemes involving new technology.") MIT, in the interpretation offered in this motion, was acting as a government agent without due process.
Update: On Monday, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Assistant US Attorney Stephen Heymann filed a brief notice of dismissal in court, citing Swartz's death. Dismissal of charges is routine once the defendant is deceased.
"MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles."
In a statement issued on Saturday, Swartz's family and partner said decisions made by officials at MIT and the US Attorney's office played a key role in Aaron's untimely death: "The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles." Microsoft researcher danah boyd wrote that "the reason [the US Attorney] 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."
Marty Weinberg, Swartz's second attorney, told the Boston Globe that MIT refused to sign off on a plea bargain agreement that would have resulted in Swartz taking probation or a deferred sentence instead of jail time. (A second report, also in the Globe, says that before Swartz's death, federal prosecutors offered him a plea deal involving a guilty plea on all 13 counts and six months of prison.) “There were subsets of the MIT community who were profoundly in support of Aaron,” Weinberg said, but larger, unnamed institutional interests within MIT, coupled with the inflexibility of the Assistant US Attorney's office, prevailed.
Update: On Sunday night, Anonymous posted a message on the MIT server titled "HACKED BY ANONYMOUS - TRIBUTE TO AARON SWARTZ." The statement calls for reform of computer crime, copyright, and intellectual property laws, commitment to a free and open internet, and for recognition of "oppression and injustices heaped daily by certain persons and institutions of authority upon anyone who dares to stand up and be counted for their beliefs." MIT's home page and internet network also had only intermittent internal and external access. Writing from inside the network, MIT Media Lab research assistant Dan Nova wrote that the only access out of the MIT network was Google, and that internally only Stellar (MIT's online learning platform) and the library network were still working. "Seems like a coordinated DNS attack," Nova added. Also on Twitter, AnonymousIRC wrote, "by the way. http://mit.edu/ down. #Anonymous #AaronSwartz." Early reports that sites associated with the Department of Justice and the W3C had also been taken down proved unfounded.
Here is the full statement by MIT president L. Rafael Reif:
To the members of the MIT community:
Yesterday we received the shocking and terrible news that on Friday in New York, Aaron Swartz, a gifted young man well known and admired by many in the MIT community, took his own life. With this tragedy, his family and his friends suffered an inexpressible loss, and we offer our most profound condolences. Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism.
Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.
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. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.
I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.I hope we will all reach out to those members of our community we know who may have been affected by Aaron's death. As always, MIT Medical is available to provide expert counseling, but there is no substitute for personal understanding and support.
With sorrow and deep sympathy,
L. Rafael Reif