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.