January 22, 2013: To the MIT community

January 22, 2013: To the MIT community

President Reif has asked me to lead a review of our involvement in the events that began in Fall 2010, when the library system learned that large numbers of articles were being downloaded from JSTOR, up through Aaron Swartz’s shocking suicide on January 11. Among the thousands of news articles and postings over the past week — many strongly critical of MIT — there was at least one comment that saw a glimmer of encouragement that the administration has assigned this task to a faculty member strongly identified with the ideals of free and open access to information on the Net, the same ideals that Aaron championed so passionately. I’m grateful and humbled by President Reif’s expression of confidence, and I’ll try to approach this review with fairness and with respect to Aaron’s memory, to his family, and to our community.

This matter is urgently serious for MIT. The world respects us not only for our scholarship and our science, but because we are an institution whose actions are and always have been guided by the highest ideals and the most thoughtful judgment. Our commitment to those ideals is now coming into question. At last Saturday’s memorial, Aaron’s partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman described his mental state: “He faced indifference from MIT, an institution that could have protected him with a single public statement and refused to do so, in defiance of all of its own most cherished principles.”

I don’t know — we don’t know — if that’s accurate or fair. But it demands our response. I hope this review can provide some insight into what MIT did or didn’t do, and why.

The review will not be a witch-hunt or an attempt to lay blame on individuals. We don’t know what we’ll find as the answers unfold, but I expect to find that every person acted in accordance with MIT policy. More than that: they acted in the belief that their actions were legally and ethically proper.

In last Sunday’s Boston Globe, distinguished MIT alumnus and former US Senator John E. Sununu writes:

“For its part, MIT is conducting the inevitable soul-searching internal investigation. New administrative policies and campus rules will be written in the soft tones of academic boilerplate. But a new policy handbook will not suffice. This is a crisis of values and judgment, and it requires a change in attitude, starting at the top.”

To this point, MIT’s administration has refrained from speaking about this matter publicly, out of its expressed desire to first have a full record of events via our report. But when the record is clear, we will all need to ask if Sununu’s criticism is on target. Are we becoming a place that, in the words of legal scholar James Boyle, “confuses order with rectitude”? That’s a question not only for MIT’s leadership, but something we will all need to ask of one another — and of ourselves.

This is for later in the spring. For now we will start with a review that gives us a clear record of what happened; that’s the review that President Reif has asked us to conduct. I hope the report can be ready in a few weeks.

There have been dozens of questions in the press and on the Net over the past week. But the most important questions are the ones that will come from the MIT community, because we are the ones who will be held to account. IS&T has created a web site at http://swartz-review.mit.edu where you can suggest questions and issues to guide this review and you can comment on the questions of others. Please remember that this is about the first phase only — questions about what happened and why. A second phase, where we all deliberate over implications, will follow.

Hal Abelson PhD ’73
Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering

James Herms about 5 years ago

A draft clarification to Swartz Review ("The MIT community ... are the ones who will be held to account.... Only members of the MIT community may contribute.")

_ Alumni members of the MIT community may not contribute.

A draft modification to the Aaron Swartz article in Wikipedia ("Swartz is said to have [entered] a controlled-access wiring closet .... [He] was charged ... with breaking and entering ....")


_ MIT said access to the closet was controlled.

or -- with the Institute's permission --

_ MIT now says access to the closet was not controlled.

James Herms MtE '87

cc: Kirk Kohlenbrander, Vice President and Secretary

James Herms about 5 years ago

Correction: Kolenbrander, not Kohlenbrander.


Anonymous about 5 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 suffice to still the baying hounds. Prof. Abelson - I've written the recommendations section of your report. You have my permission to cut and paste.

Look - none of this would have become such a big tsimmis if Swartz was not meshuga and had not gone and killed himself to avoid a 6 month sentence. Now the family and his friends feel guilty that they did not see the warning signs or get him proper help (indeed they acted as his enablers by praising and putting up with the quirks of the "eccentric genius" for so many years). So they try to shift their guilt onto MIT. You, Professor Abelson, can play your assigned role in this Kabuki theater or you can show some real baytzim and confirm that MIT has legitimate interests in the integrity of its network (which has now been attacked repeatedly by Swartz's "friends" - by his friends you shall know him) and that MIT will and should call in law enforcement when such a criminal trespass has occurred.

Robin Chauhan about 5 years ago

You wrote "...I expect to find that every person acted in accordance with MIT policy. More than that: they acted in the belief that their actions were legally and ethically proper."

Prof. Abelson, I hope this (perhaps premature) optimism does not unduly bias your review.

John K. Hinsdale about 5 years ago

Am I the only one who finds it ironic that MIT's IST organization has set up the "suggestion box" for Abelson's review, while being the same group at MIT who called in the Feds on Swartz? Marilyn T. Smith, what can you do about this?!

-- John K. Hinsdale, MIT 1986, Couse VI-III

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick about 5 years ago

Prof. Abelson,

While I understand the reasons for the MIT president selecting you for this role when he is facing a baying mob of hackers, relatives and media, it must be said that despite your computer science credentials, you are not a credible person for this investigation.

That's because you are a founder of Creative Commons, and therefore a believer in decoupling commerce from copying and discouraging payment online for content -- in a word, a copyleftist. That's a conflict of interest because you will be supportive of what Swartz did as a hacker to smash the ability of JSTOR and MIT to charge for content or create walled gardens for content.

It was to pursue his mentor Lessig's obvious goal of removing commercial enterprise from knowledge transfer and indeed all digital content that Swartz made a deliberate act, a "propaganda of the deed" abusing MIT's servers.

This tragedy is too big and has too many public policy consequences not only for MIT but US law in general that you should have a whole commission, of both professors and lawyers, and not just hackers and copyleftists, but those also devoted to the integrity of the Internet for a variety of purposes outside the open source cult. It should be more impartial and credible than it is now.


James Herms about 5 years ago

If MIT acknowledges that it wasn't controlling access to the closet -- and that Swartz wasn't "breaking" -- wouldn't the advanced persistent threat to MIT's security be more likely to go away?

(Note. Both criminal complaints say Swartz broke and entered a "ship, motor vehicle, or vessel.")

cc: Greg Morgan, Vice President and General Counsel

Anonymous about 5 years ago

Your statement "but I expect to find that every person acted in accordance with MIT policy. More than that: they acted in the belief that their actions were legally and ethically proper" disturbs me on many levels.

Your statement reeks of institutionsal policy, procedure and laws. As a compliance officer it is clear your task has "lawsuit" written all over it - to ensure MIT acted accordingly and minimize legal exposure.

Is your next strategy to dust off the DSM IV and explain this from a psychological perpsective?

What will be interesting to reveal is whether or not anyone from the MIT community reached out to Aaron first to discuss his actions, its impact on MIT and JSTOR rather than escalating it to a legal matter "per policy."

Perhaps MIT needs to conduct an institutional review because I wonder, for example, whether your International Students Office reports all violations of status to Homeland Security (for fear of real terrorist attacks). Most likely not - because that could result in students being expelled and deported back to their home countries resulting in loss of revenue to your institution.

It is important for higher education institutions and their agents to always explore the grey areas rather than react to everything in a black and white "policy" manner.

More importantly, and why so many are reacting on such a visceral level to this tragedy, is have we forgotten that our ultimate focus in higher education is people? To interact, support, nurture, and yes, correct accordingly and proportionately when necessary.

This is indeed a time of great reflection.

Aurolyn Luykx about 5 years ago

To "Anonymous" (how brave!): Swartz was being threatened with 30 years of jail time, not "six months." Don't you read?

chan about 5 years ago

John K. Hinsdale, don't you see ?

Probably on Abelson or Grimson's suggestions they try to set you up by luring you to make your comments on http://swartz-review.mit.edu, including these available here.

I think the best summary of what has happened is at


Everyone seems to scared for their own good to state something.

Do u really think kids at MIT are going to make their suggestions or questions

public at http://swartz-review.mit.edu ? That's ridic !

Is MIT's current leadership up to the task ? Look at how biased Abelson's response is. He is protecting his fellows so as to avoid any political repercussion games. I'm sorry Abelson for having been placed into the position to HAVE to investigate this matter but SINCE U DO



MIT's current leading position, aside from the president who inherited this mess, has been the worst in history. Look at how many suicides happened under the current chancellor ... it's the worst MIT has experienced.

Abelson's response should reflect on why the top official who was

leading the investigation did not cease it when he had two bombastic opportunities.

I'd expect someone to take the blame and fall.

Who again was the lead investigator for this ? And I don't care how many student he has taught at MIT neither how many Phds he has nurtured. He COST A LIFE of a young boyish but beautiful mind!


IF ABELSON's ANALYSIS merely reiterates that everyone acted according to any shitty policy then this man is soo DONE along with the people he is trying to protect.

Karma will do the rest.

Anonymous about 5 years ago

Could someone please explain to me why it is MIT should have fought to defend this guy? I seriously don't understand it. He trespassed and abused the MIT network, he got busted and federally prosecuted, yet somehow MIT was supposed to stand up for him? Why?

Ron Newman \'79 about 5 years ago

MIT Alumni can now log into http://swartz-review.mit.edu with an Infinite Connection account, and participate in the process. Thanks to Hal Abelson for making this possible

Anonymous about 5 years ago

President Reif's letter to the community should be quoted in the dictionary to illustrate the meaning of the word "disingenuous." He doesn't need a committee to tell him that he personally chose not to call off the US attorney. Anyone know anything about university governance? Nothing this important happens without direct presidential involvement. Rief should come clean and apologize...or maybe resign.

Anonymous about 5 years ago

Anonymous Nobody expects MIT to defend the guy. In fact, it would be okay by everybody for administrative action against Aaron. What everybody has a problem with, is the university escalating an administrative violation to Feds.

When Zuckerberg brought down Stanford network with facemash etc, he wasn't handed over to Feds but slapped with administrative sanctions. Given that Aaron had a legitimate association with MIT, he could have been punished administratively.

Barry Kort about 5 years ago

I didnt know Aaron Swartz personally, so I can only imagine how he felt in the wake of his treatment by the Justice System. Were I in his place, I would have been mortified by the disproportionate response by the US Attorney and I would have felt forsaken by the powers that be at MIT.