The Real Reason Behind MIT’s “Incoherent” Stance on the Aaron Swartz Case

Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia Meetup in August 2009.
Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia Meetup in August 2009

Courtesy of Sage Ross/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

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MIT’s final report on its role in the prosecution and eventual suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has been roundly maligned by those who had hoped for a condemnation of the school’s actions (and inaction) in the case. Swartz’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, has called it a “whitewash”; his father, Robert Swartz, told Time that “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.” Yesterday I added my voice to the chorus of disapproval with a piece criticizing how the report “ultimately accepts” MIT’s neutral stance in the Swartz case.

After rereading the report, I think I may have been a bit too harsh, even if I don’t agree with the school’s actions. The report isn’t really a justification of MIT’s behavior so much as an explanation of how a great university could be so narrow-minded. MIT promotes itself as an open and innovative place, and it is in many ways, but it is also a large bureaucracy, and the report shows how the institute’s size and structure helped shape its response to the Swartz case. Hal Abelson and his co-authors muster great detail to explain how and why MIT chose its course of action, and how and why it missed various opportunities to act differently. I actually think the report is the sort of thing Swartz might have enjoyed reading.

As I reported in my February piece on Aaron Swartz, “The Idealist,” he spent his life studying organizational behavior. He was fascinated with the decision-making structures of large organizations, and how those structures could either foster or hinder effective, intelligent processes and outcomes. Key to these effective, intelligent processes is an organizational capacity for honest internal discussion of and reflection on policies and decisions—a capacity that MIT apparently lacked. The review panel’s report makes clear that while MIT is a center of technological innovation, it spends little time teaching or thinking about “the personal ethics and legal obligations of technology empowerment.” This deficiency helped inform its response to the Swartz case. Here’s the report:

If MIT had had a locus of scholarly activity around issues of information access during Swartz’s arrest and prosecution, one can imagine that there would have been more active participation by the community as events were transpiring, more appetite for engaging the larger issues the prosecution brought to light, and more recognition of MIT’s opportunity and responsibility to play a leadership role.

Instead, the administration chose to maintain a “hands-off attitude that regarded the prosecution as a legal dispute to which it was not a party,” punting on the opportunity to act as an intellectual and moral leader on policy issues that are beginning to affect the entire world. This decision is especially frustrating when you realize that, 20 years earlier, MIT made the exact opposite decision in a very similar case. The disconnect reveals a troubling lack of institutional memory at the institute, and further explains how and why MIT acted as it did.

In 1994 an MIT student named David LaMacchia used a university workstation to set up a file server to transfer software and computer games. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston initially wanted to charge LaMacchia with “exceeding authorized access” to a protected computer (the MIT workstation) under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But MIT balked, and the prosecutors charged LaMacchia instead with conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The charges were eventually dismissed.

LaMacchia’s and Swartz’s legal troubles are similar in many ways. Both involved the allegedly unauthorized use of MIT equipment to transfer copyrighted material for noncommercial purposes. Both men faced similar charges. But—the crucial difference—MIT chose to speak out against the LaMacchia charges, whereas it said nothing in defense of Swartz.

Why the difference? For one thing, LaMacchia was an MIT student, and Aaron Swartz was not. But here’s another reason: According to the MIT report, none of the personnel involved in the Swartz deliberations even seemed to remember who David LaMacchia was. “There was no reflection on the LaMacchia case during Swartz’s prosecution: institutional memory had been lost,” the report says.

Given the similarities between the two situations, MIT could have used its actions in the LaMacchia case as a precedent to guide its deliberations and actions in the Swartz case. But the university’s ignorance of its own history prevented that from happening, and helped contribute to its neutral stance.

The Abelson report concludes with a valuable insight from an unnamed friend of Swartz’s. The friend noted that “MIT will continue to be at the cutting edge in information technology and, in today’s world, challenges like those presented in Aaron Swartz’s case will arise again and again.” Given that, the friend said, “Neutrality on these cases is an incoherent stance. It’s not the right choice for a tough leader or a moral leader.” I couldn’t agree more.