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July 31, 2013

Administrators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say the prestigious university didn’t target Internet activist Aaron Swartz after he was charged with hacking into MIT’s network.

MIT’s internal review released Tuesday supports the school’s position that it didn’t do anything wrong.

At 26-years-old, Swartz was facing federal prosecution and up to 30 years in prison for using a laptop to download millions of articles from the digital archive called JSTOR.

The Internet activist wanted to make those articles widely available to the public.

In January 2013, two years after his indictment, Swartz hanged himself. His suicide sparked a national debate over whether MIT and federal prosecutors were too aggressive in seeking prosecution of the computer programmer.

MIT professor Hal Abelson led the six-month review that included interviews with 50 people and concluded the school didn’t want Swartz to go to jail.

“It’s not that MIT wasn’t too aggressive in prosecuting Aaron Swartz, MIT never asked for Aaron to be prosecuted,” he said Tuesday.

The report did find that the school didn’t take into consideration the broader context of the case.

“It’s not a question of going after Aaron Swartz. It’s just basically not being engaged as an intellectual community,” Abelson said.

Swartz’s broad-base of supporters have characterized MIT’s review as a “whitewash.” And Swartz’s father has said MIT should have advocated for him.

Abelson said the review committee had many heartbreaking conversations with Swartz’s father, but, ultimately, it decided MIT did the right thing by staying on the sidelines.

“We actually think that neutrality was appropriate at the beginning of the prosecution, where one can ask a little bit deeper as this went on for a year and a half, should MIT have gotten more involved and think about what it was doing, and we didn’t see that happening,” he said.

On campus, reactions to MIT’s review were mixed. Nuclear engineering student Samuel Brinton said he knew of Swartz as a brilliant mind, and he would have liked to see the university support him.

“I’m not quite sure they considered all the options," he said. “If MIT truly believed what it preaches – it preaches open education – then if they truly believed that they were being neutral, I think they could have done more.”

On the other side of campus, European history professor Jeff Ravel pointed out that higher education has yet to establish a gatekeeper in a digital environment. And he wants to take more time to review MIT’s study of the Aaron Swartz case before passing judgment.

“I would suspect that this report will have credibility. I don’t think you can say it whitewashes it until you’ve read it and studied it carefully. Once that’s been done, if it’s still found lacking then more review should be done,” Ravel said.

At this point, Ravel said the review seems to be extensive, but as a historian he recognizes that sometimes the most critical information doesn’t always survive in the archive.

Editor's note: Attorney Harvey Silverglate and Former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan joined Greater Boston on July 30 to talk about MIT's approach and the report.

technology, MIT, ethics, higher ed, technology and innovation

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