The case of "U.S. vs. Swartz," dating back two years, was doggedly pursued by federal prosecutors who sought jail time against the 26-year-old computer innovator Aaron Swartz for his alleged theft of a massive amount of scholarly articles from the JSTOR database service available through the MIT campus network at the time. Swartz committed suicide in January shortly before his trial was set to begin this year, and his death was a shock that prompted widespread media coverage.
MIT's new 182-page report explains in detail why the university kept to its silent "neutrality" position, saying nothing one way or the other publicly about the federal prosecution of Swartz, who wasn't an MIT student. But some Swartz supporters called the MIT report a "whitewash" to "protect MIT's image."
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The Boston-based group supporting Swartz, called Demand Progress, said the report might be intended to "provide closure for the MIT community regarding the over prosecution and tragic loss of Aaron Swartz." But the group's representative, Charlie Furman, asserted the MIT report "simply whitewashes MIT's role in Aaron's prosecution and revises history to protect MIT's image." The group says a few, simple actions by MIT could have made a difference. "If the university had said publicly, 'we don't want this prosecution to go forward' there would have been no case and Aaron would be alive today."
Two days after Swartz died by hanging himself in his Brooklyn apartment, leaving no suicide note as to why, MIT President Rafael Reif asked computer science professor Hal Abelson to lead a review of MIT's involvement in the events starting in September 2010 when MIT heard about the JSTOR downloads, up to the January suicide.
Abelson worked on the report with MIT economics professor Peter Diamond, Andrew Grosso, a D.C.-based attorney and former Assistant U.S. Attorney with expertise in computer law, with additional assistance provided by MIT assistant provost for administration, Douglas Pfeiffer.
MIT says its official "neutral" wait-and-see position was based on factors such as lack of consensus internally on the Swartz case -- noting there was some opinion he'd apparently done something wrong -- and a sense that whatever MIT said wouldn't change the intent of federal prosecutors to push forward against Swartz.
"MIT took the position that 'U.S vs. Swartz' was simply a lawsuit to which it was not a party, although it did inform the U.S. Attorney's Office that the prosecution should not be under the impression that MIT wanted jail time for Aaron Swartz. (MIT did not say it was actually opposed to jail time)," the report says. "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; and that the United States government was pursuing an overtly aggressive prosecution."