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MIT denies targeting Aaron Swartz, but admits 'neutral' stance gave FBI the upper hand

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"MIT didn't do anything wrong; but we didn't do ourselves proud."

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MIT has finally released a report on its role in the prosecution of hacktivist Aaron Swartz — a legal battle that's been blamed for spurring his suicide in January of 2013. In an open letter, president R. Rafael Reif said that the report would show that MIT "did not seek federal prosecution, punishment or jail time" for Swartz after finding that he had used MIT's network to access and mass-download articles from academic repository JSTOR. The report, compiled by Professor Hal Abelson and others, finds that MIT didn't actively aggravate the case that would consume Swartz's life, saying there was no "silver bullet" that could have prevented the tragedy of his death. However, it also raises questions about the stance that the university should have taken, and the strength of the case against him.

"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," it reads. "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." Later, it quotes one source as saying "MIT didn't do anything wrong; but we didn't do ourselves proud."

MIT may never have actually said whether Swartz's network access was 'unauthorized'

That neutrality, says the report, meant that MIT limited its involvement in the case (hiring outside counsel and responding to subpoenas but not asking for criminal prosecution) and made no public statements regarding Swartz or his case. It says that before Swartz's suicide, this prompted little criticism. "Few students, faculty, or alumni expressed concerns to the administration," it reads. "In preserving MIT's stance of neutrality and limited involvement, MIT decision makers did not inquire into the details of the charges until a year after the indictment, and did not form an opinion about their merits." MIT did "inform the US Attorney's Office that the prosecution should not be under the impression that MIT wanted jail time for Aaron Swartz," though it did not actively oppose jail time for Swartz either.

MIT's worst actions are described as sins of omission that indict the Justice Department more than the university. "Among the factors not considered were that the defendant was an accomplished and well-known contributor to Internet technology; that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is a poorly drafted and questionable criminal law as applied to modern computing, one that affects the Internet community as a whole and is widely criticized; and that the United States government was pursuing an overtly aggressive prosecution," the reviewers write. MIT, they say, categorically did not set out to make an example of Swartz, but it's implied that the FBI may well have done so.

MIT says it denied Swartz access to documents because it assumed the government would hand them over

Longtime online law authority Larry Lessig points out what may be a particularly tragic and infuriating point: that the "unauthorized" network access that made Swartz so vulnerable to prosecution under the CFAA may not have been unauthorized at all. "MIT was never asked by either the prosecution or the defense whether Aaron Swartz's access to the MIT network was authorized or unauthorized - nor did MIT ask this of itself." Swartz had hooked up his laptop to an MIT ethernet cable in a network closet, and the investigation points to a cat-and-mouse game as employees tried to stop Swartz from downloading articles, but the report says that Swartz arguably had authorized "guest" access through the entire process.

Despite its ongoing claims to neutrality, the report cites instances where MIT's actions helped the prosecution more than the defense. It notes that some information was turned over to the government without a subpoena, contrary to early information given to Aaron Swartz's father Robert. It also admits that Swartz's defense attempted to contact MIT multiple times but got only slow replies. However, it calls the explanations for these delays largely mundane. It also touched on a major criticism leveled by Swartz's partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman: that the prosecution was given broader access to witnesses and evidence than the defense.

MIT assumed, the report says, that the prosecution would ask to call more witnesses than the defense, but the university still attempted to accommodate "reasonable requests" by either party. In several cases, however, it provided documents more readily to the prosecution, either handing them over without a subpoena or denying requests by the defense. The reason, it says, is a legal one, based on a rule that says defendants should be allowed to get documents from their prosecutors in a criminal case. MIT's legal counsel apparently assumed that Swartz could get these documents from the government, though the assertion that it "did not want MIT to engage in duplication of effort" to get the documents seems questionable.

In a statement to The New York Times, Robert Swartz said that MIT had collected and presented the facts well, but he disputed its central assertion. "MIT claimed it was neutral," he said, "and it was not — and besides, should have advocated on Aaron's behalf."