Aaron Swartz’s Father Blasts MIT Report, Says School Wasn’t Neutral

In an interview with TIME, Robert Swartz says MIT failed in its "moral obligation" to advocate on Aaron’s behalf

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Noah Berger / REUTERS

Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008.

Aaron Swartz’s father is sharply critical of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s new report on the school’s role in the criminal investigation and subsequent death of his son. Aaron, a celebrated young computer programmer and Internet activist, committed suicide in January. He was facing a federal prison sentence on felony data-theft charges for downloading academic articles using MIT’s network. Swartz’s death triggered an outpouring of grief in the technology and Internet community, and prompted soul-searching questions among policy experts, lawmakers and MIT officials.

MIT has come under intense criticism for its handling of the Swartz affair. Two days after Swartz’s death, MIT president L. Rafael Reif asked Hal Abelson, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, to conduct an investigation into MIT’s actions leading up to Swartz’s suicide. Abelson’s 182-page report, which was released Tuesday, asserts that MIT remained neutral throughout the Swartz investigation, and did not publicly advocate on Swartz’s behalf because to do so “might make circumstances worse” for Swartz.

In an interview with TIME, Robert Swartz, Aaron’s father, praised Abelson for assembling the facts, but said that a clear reading of those facts shows that MIT was not neutral in Aaron’s case. “The report is a contradiction because it says that MIT was neutral, and yet it makes very clear that MIT was actually not neutral,” Robert Swartz said. “MIT called in the police and then violated the law by providing the government with information and material from Aaron’s computer without a court order. Then they lied to me about those facts.”

(MOREAaron Swartz’s Suicide Prompts MIT Soul-Searching)

Federal prosecutors charged Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a controversial 1980s-era law originally designed to ward off “WarGames“-style attempts to break into Cold War-era government computer systems like NORAD. Swartz, who believed deeply that academic research — especially research funded by U.S. taxpayers — should be available to the public, allegedly hooked up a laptop inside an MIT computer closet in order to download academic articles from the JSTOR scholarly database.

Abelson’s report provides a vivid account of how, in September of 2010, MIT network administrators first noticed that someone was downloading huge numbers of JSTOR articles. Over the next few months, MIT officials sought to identify the source of the downloading. On January 4, 2011, MIT officials discovered a laptop connected to a network switch in a basement closet of Building 16 on campus. MIT Police immediately called a detective working with the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force (NET), who arrived on campus with a U.S. Secret Service agent also working for the task force. Swartz was arrested on January 6, 2011 by two MIT police officers and the Secret Service agent.

In his report, Abelson wrote that “we have not found a silver bullet with which MIT could have simply prevented the tragedy.” Nevertheless, “MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership that we pride ourselves on,” because MIT has traditionally taken pride in “promoting open access to online information, and for dealing wisely with the risks of computer abuse.”

The report says that although MIT’s putative neutrality stance “may have been prudent,” the university did not “duly take into account the wider background” of policy issues “in which MIT people have traditionally been passionate leaders.” For example, MIT did not consider “that the defendant was an accomplished and well-known contributor to Internet technology,” that the law under which he was charged “is a poorly drafted and questionable criminal law as applied to modern computing,” and that “the United States was pursuing an overtly aggressive prosecution.”

(MOREU.S. ‘Hacker’ Crackdown Sparks Debate over Computer-Fraud Law)

Swartz’s death has become a flash point in the growing debate over the CFAA, which critics say has been twisted by U.S. prosecutors to bully and intimidate security researchers, journalists, and activists with extremely harsh federal prison sentences. In recent years, the U.S. government has used the CFAA as a legal weapon in an intensifying federal crackdown against so-called computer “hackers.” Critics say the CFAA is too vague, overly broad and allows the government to seek wildly disproportionate sentences for victimless crimes, often to send a message to other would-be “hackers.”

Last month, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), proposed “Aaron’s Law,” which is designed to reform the CFAA. The bill would establish that terms of service violations are not automatic breaches of the CFAA, punishable by decades in prison, and limit the ability of prosecutors to “stack” charges on top of each other, compounding the penalties the U.S. government wields to pressure defendants into plea bargain agreements.

In a letter to the MIT community on Tuesday, MIT president Reif said that after reviewing Abelson’s report, “I am confident that MIT’s decisions were reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith.” According to Reif, the report “sets the record straight by dispelling widely circulated myths. For example, 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.”

(MOREAaron Swartz, Tech Prodigy and Internet Activist, Is Dead at 26)

The Abelson report notes, however, that “MIT did not say it was actually opposed to jail time,” nor did the university ask the government to drop the prosecution. “MIT wasn’t neutral,” said Robert Swartz. “They cooperated with the government and worked very closely with the prosecutor in the case.” In an interview with TIME in May, he said: “It’s everyone’s responsibility to fight the government when the government is doing something unjust. MIT failed.”

Robert Swartz believes that prosecutors were intent on making an example out of his son, perhaps in an attempt to deter other so-called “hackers.” Shortly after Swartz’s death, Aaron’s lawyer Elliot Peters told HuffPost that Stephen Heymann, the federal prosecutor was aiming for “juicy looking computer crime cases and Aaron’s case, sadly for Aaron, fit the bill.” Peters said he thought Heymann believed the Swartz case “was going to receive press and he was going to be a tough guy and read his name in the newspaper.”

In his letter, MIT President Reif wrote: “Knowing the tragedy of Aaron Swartz’s death, I read the report with a tremendous sense of sorrow. His family and friends suffered a terrible personal loss, and the Internet community lost an exceptional leader. Even those of us who never knew him mourn the loss of someone so young and so brilliant.”

To Aaron’s father, Reif’s letter rang hollow. “One of the great failures on MIT’s part was a failure of compassion,” Robert Swartz told TIME. “Aaron was dealing with a cruel and vindictive prosecutor, and MIT should have put a stop to it. MIT had a moral obligation to advocate on Aaron’s behalf. MIT’s hyper-legal defense of its actions shows that MIT still doesn’t have compassion for how it destroyed Aaron’s life, and the effect that had on Aaron’s family.”