Opinion editorial

Tough questions for MIT

How will MIT navigate the Swartz crisis?

The death of Aaron Swartz hit MIT hard. The Institute suddenly finds itself confronted with deep and important questions: What kind of role did MIT play in the prosecution of the 26-year-old prodigy? Is there something MIT could have — or should have — done that would have averted such a tragic outcome?

MIT and U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz face mounting criticism. First, Swartz’s family publicly accused MIT and Ortiz of contributing to Aaron’s death. The “hacktivist” group Anonymous allegedly brought down MIT’s network and rewrote MIT webpages to bear their message. And new evidence has emerged over the past few days which suggests MIT may have stood in the way of a plea bargain and misled the Swartz family regarding the handover of network data to the government.

At the same time, President Rafael Reif’s appointment of Professor Hal Abelson to head an internal review is meaningful. Abelson is a senior, well-respected faculty member with extensive experience in issues of an open Internet, technology, and law. The appointment — and the promise to make Abelson’s report public — demonstrates that Reif is serious about getting to the bottom of MIT’s decision-making process.

Abelson’s inquiry should seek to clarify events at key junctures. Who decided to escalate the investigation into Swartz’ network activity to the point where the federal government would become involved — and what was the rationale? And when it became clear that the government would pursue charges against Swartz, who at MIT decided what information the Institute would share, and under what circumstances?

We also wonder whether MIT’s silence on the matter, aside from Reif’s singular statement, is wise. It is important to note that MIT’s general style is to not engage in tit-for-tat political debates with the public. And it is also true that MIT may not have anything of substance to say until Abelson completes his report. But the public conversation is starting to back MIT into a corner — at the very least, we expect MIT and Abelson to lay out a timeline and clear expectations for the report.

In the meantime, MIT students face an important question: How will MIT treat its own students who find themselves in a similar situation as Swartz? The Institute has long been a place that has embraced experimentation and technological creativity — even when it falls in a legal gray area. If the legal buffer provided by MIT is less of a given, will students be more reluctant to take the kinds of risks they’re famous for? MIT’s campus is a playground for its students, and that ethos has been fundamental to the educational experience here. It is critical that the Institute maintain a culture of openness — not through concrete policy directives, but via the same subtle signaling it has been using for 150 years.

President Reif is facing his first real crisis. His handling of it will frame the rest of his presidency. While noting that Reif more-or-less inherited the Swartz situation from former president Susan J. Hockfield, The Tech is expecting his administration to demonstrate serious introspection, and if necessary, accountability. We, and the rest of the world, will be watching.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

The soul searching at MIT should be personal as well institutional. All of you and any of you--students, faculty, administrators, librarians, MIT Tech editorial writers--could have spoken out in support of Aaron before he died. Just as in the Star Simpson case, most of you waited for your lamentations until after the damage had been done. Why did so few of you challenge what your own institution was doing to Aaron? He died because MIT pursued him vindictively. He died because YOU didn't challenge MIT.

Keith Yost over 11 years ago

Re: 1

Yes, clearly Swartz' death was OUR fault. Oh why oh why did we not write articles defending some random person because his actions could potentially be punished more severely than what we might have elected for maybe. I see it all so clearly now: MIT personally executed a perfectly innocent man, and we just stood by and watched in mute complicity.

Go home anonymous, you're drunk.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

Aaron was a genius - no doubt about that. The methods he used to get to the Jstor documents was certainly illegal. It is a different matter that JStor decided not to pursue the case. While Aaron was working on a worthy cause, there could be many criminals/foreign spies who may use similar techniques to siphon valuable data from MIT which is NOT a public university - thousands of parents like me are paying their hard earned money to send their children to MIT. All those accusing MIT, please do not forget that Aaron had a documented history of depression much before this case was filed.

M. Hunt over 11 years ago

Keith Yost

I agree that it may be going too far to assert, as some have, that the there is no question but that the MIT community had a responsibility to stand up for Mr. Swartz once it became clear that the DOJ was determined to make an example of him.

But really. Snarkily bemoaning the unfairness of any suggestion that the MIT community engage in some self-examination, in a case where a young man is dead and it's clear that the Institute's actions might have had played some role in how events unfurled?

Referring to Mr. Swartz as 'some random person'?

Are you a human being? Or are you just intentionally reinforcing the stereotype of MIT people as soulless, insensitive, entitled jerks?

M. Hunt

Course III 80-83

Anonymous over 11 years ago

Keith Yost accurately reflects the sentiment of the MIT community on the Swartz affair. Swartz had no formal affiliation with MIT, so to most anyone at MIT he was indeed "some random person". MIT took no action on behalf of Swartz not out of malice, but out of utmost indifference.

The only reason Rafael Reif issued his pitiful statement is because Swartz had died and his death is causing a major public relation disaster for MIT. His statement, and also this Tech editorial, are cynical attempts at damage control rather than sincere calls for "soul-searching" (whatever that means). As such, we must thank Keith Yost for his refreshing honesty.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

The next time MIT catches a hacker in a network closet siphoning massive amounts of data, it should give that fellow a medal instead of calling the cops. If he (or she) is unaffiliated with MIT, then 2 medals - an extra one for chutzpah. If he is a depressive ex-child prodigy and hero of the anti-capitalist left, then 4 medals plus an honorary degree (I know MIT doesn't give these out, but in such a special case, they should). Anything less than this will not still the baying hounds. Prof. Abelson - I've written the recommendations section of your report. You have my permission to cut and paste.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

MIT has become a very hypocritical place - administrators engage in manipulative behavior that belies the pretty public image they craft.