MIT Defends Its 'Neutral' Stance On Aaron Swartz As 'Reasonable' Even As It Failed To Understand Importance Of The Case

from the sometimes-remaining-neutral-is-a-bad-thing dept

It's taken some time, but the report that MIT's President requested from professor Hal Abelson concerning MIT's roles in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz has now been released. It's quite detailed and well worth reading. The "bottom line" is that it argues that MIT did its best to "stay neutral" throughout the entire process, and that this was a perfectly reasonable legal strategy, though, possibly not the best ethical strategy. MIT's President, Rafael Reif, has issued a letter with the report, stating that "I am confident that MIT's decisions were reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith." Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman quickly hit back, arguing that the claim that MIT was "neutral" is not very convincing:
MIT’s behavior throughout the case was reprehensible, and this report is quite frankly a whitewash.

Here are the facts: This report claims that MIT was “neutral” — but MIT’s lawyers gave prosecutors total access to witnesses and evidence, while refusing access to Aaron’s lawyers to the exact same witnesses and evidence. That’s not neutral. The fact is that all MIT had to do was say publicly, “We don’t want this prosecution to go forward” – and Steve Heymann and Carmen Ortiz would have had no case.
Separately, she contrasts MIT's behavior with JSTOR's -- the organization which really had the only legitimate (and even then a weak legitimacy) claim to any "harm" from Swartz's actions. JSTOR very publicly made it known that it did not support the prosecution and did not wish to see Swartz prosecuted. MIT took a very different approach. From the summary of the paper:
MIT never requested that a criminal prosecution be brought against Aaron Swartz. Early in the prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston (the “USAO”), MIT adopted a position of remaining neutral, with limited involvement. MIT hired outside counsel who had experience in criminal law and in the functioning of the Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office; and MIT requested and received subpoenas for the production of documents. Some documents were turned over to the USAO prior to receiving a subpoena, but, for the reasons discussed in this report, this production did not violate federal laws.

In keeping with its stance of neutrality, MIT never issued a public statement about Swartz’s prosecution or advocated publicly on his behalf, even though doing this was urged by Aaron Swartz’s family and legal team and by two members of the faculty. One of the reasons for MIT’s silence was the good-faith belief, based on private conversations with the lead prosecutor, that the Institute’s opinion would have no effect on the prosecution, and that public statements might make circumstances worse for Aaron Swartz. MIT did inform the prosecution that it was not seeking punishment for Swartz, and it did inform the defense that it was not seeking any civil remedy from him.
The report also claims that, basically, no one in "the MIT community" seemed to care about the story until after Swartz's death, which seems like a bit of a cop out. Also, there's this:
MIT took the position that U.S. v. Swartz was simply a lawsuit to which it was not a party, although it did inform the U.S. Attorney’s Office that the prosecution should not be under the impression that MIT wanted jail time for Aaron Swartz. (MIT did not say it was actually opposed to jail time.)
Basically, this policy of "neutrality" may have been legally reasonable, but could still be seen as highly questionable given MIT's role as an institution of higher learning -- one that famously encourages open exploration and sharing of knowledge and information, as well as some element of hacking. I think David Weinberger makes the right point here:
When Pres. Reif writes that MIT’s actions were “reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith” I think we have to ask “Appropriate to what?” To MIT’s interests as a legal entity? Very likely. To MIT as a university? Not in my book.... MIT’s timid “neutrality” wasted an opportunity to stand against the unreasonable and inappropriate tactics of the prosecutors, and to stand for the spirit of inquiry, openness, innovation, and risk-taking that has made MIT one of the world’s great universities.

I understand that MIT wasn’t going to say that it was fine with Aaron’s breaching its contract with JSTOR. But MIT could have stood against prosecutorial overreach, and for the values— if not the exact actions— Aaron embodied.
That's exactly right. Sometimes taking a neutral stance on an issue of great importance is the equivalent of making the wrong choice. MIT missed the boat here.

Separately, Larry Lessig makes an important point: buried in the report is the fact that prosecutors never bothered to ask MIT if Swartz's access was unauthorized, even as they charged him with unauthorized access, and used that as the key to pressing the case:
As far as the Review Panel could determine, MIT was never asked by either the prosecution or the defense whether Aaron Swartz’s access to the MIT network was authorized or unauthorized—nor did MIT ask this of itself. Given that (1) MIT was the alleged victim of counts 9 and 12, (2) the MIT access policy, its Rules of Use, and its own interpretation of those Rules of Use (including the significance or “materiality” of any violation of those terms) were at the heart of the government’s CFAA allegations in counts in both indictments, and (3) this policy and these rules were written, interpreted, and applied by MIT for MIT’s own mission and goals—not those of the Government— the Review Panel wonders why.
As Lessig points out, this makes the tragedy of the situation even worse. Not only did MIT try to take a "neutral stance," nobody either at MIT nor among the prosecutors ever even bothered to figure out if Swartz's access really was unauthorized.


Filed Under: aaron swartz, cfaa, hal abelson, mit, neutral, rafael reif, unauthorized access


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jul 2013 @ 3:32pm

    when you conduct the investigation into your own behaviour, are you not gonna come to the conclusion that you did everything as you should have, by the book?

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