I've already written some basic thoughts
on the death of Aaron Swartz, and I know that more will be forthcoming, but within the justifiable anger out in the world over this turn of events, there are some reports suggesting that DDoS attacks took down MIT's website
and possibly other sites (though, reports of the Justice Department's website being taken down were wrong). This happened soon after MIT put out a statement
about Swartz, following the statement from Swartz's family that pointed a finger directly at MIT.
The family had said:
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”
In response, MIT's statement, by president L. Rafael Reif, was actually somewhat self-reflective, admitting that the university needed to look closely at its own role in the situation, and appointing professor Hal Abelson -- someone quite knowledgeable and active in many of the same causes as Aaron -- to lead the investigation.
To the members of the MIT community:
Yesterday we received the shocking and terrible news that on Friday in New York, Aaron Swartz, a gifted young man well known and admired by many in the MIT community, took his own life. With this tragedy, his family and his friends suffered an inexpressible loss, and we offer our most profound condolences. Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism.
Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.
I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.
I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.
I hope we will all reach out to those members of our community we know who may have been affected by Aaron's death. As always, MIT Medical is available to provide expert counseling, but there is no substitute for personal understanding and support.
With sorrow and deep sympathy,
L. Rafael Reif
I am sure that many will continue to criticize MIT for its actions in this mess -- and some criticism may be well deserved. That said, MIT's response here is a step forward -- and hopefully it creates real change in how MIT handles such things in the future. I think that there are many, many, many reasons to be furious about the Justice Department's actions in the Swartz case (and I felt that long before Swartz's death). However, a DDoS attack on MIT or the DOJ or anyone else is exactly the wrong message
to send concerning Aaron. Yes, I was just defending
the use of DDoS as a form of expression and protest, but this is not
the kind of protest that serves Aaron's memory well.
Aaron -- more than almost anyone else -- did
stuff. He built
stuff and he created
change. Not by taking things down, but by building them up. Not by attacking, but by sharing and informing and educating.
Aaron's memory needs to be preserved, and his death will hopefully be a catalyst for many changes -- to the way the government prosecutes people, to the way computer hacking laws are used today, to the way copyright laws are used and much, much more. But the way to do that is to do something proactive and positive
. The organization Aaron founded is called Demand Progress
, and that's what we should be doing now.
We should be looking for ways to continue Aaron's work
, to build, to share, to create and to create change through sheer will of knowing what's right.
So, don't participate in attacks or takedowns. Look for ways to build something up. Create efforts to change problematic laws like the CFAA or copyright law. Look for ways to share knowledge and expand our ability to learn and to educate each other. Create ways for people to speak out and to enable everyone to do more.
That is the legacy that I believe Aaron would have wanted. It will always be impossible to fill the void that Aaron's death has left in its wake -- but if it inspires each of us to do a little more, to create some positive change, to truly demand progress
in the face of ridiculous odds, then that
will be the testament to all that Aaron did for the world.