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Swartz report spurs MIT to hold forums on open access, computer crime

In response to questions raised after the prosecution and death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, MIT will arrange gatherings for the community to discuss ethics and information technology, Provost Chris Kaiser and Faculty Chair Steven Hall announced Wednesday. The dates of the gatherings will be announced “in the coming weeks,” according to their email to the MIT community.

Kaiser and Hall also announced a new website,, where MIT affiliates can comment on questions posed in a report written after President L. Rafael Reif asked computer science professor Hal Abelson to look into the role MIT played in 2011 and 2012 as the government pursued felony charges of computer fraud against Swartz.

The questions:

Should MIT develop additional on-campus expertise for handling potential computer crime incidents, thus giving the Institute more flexibility in formulating its responses? When Aaron Swartz’s laptop was discovered wired up to a network switch in a Building 16 basement closet, MIT police sought help from Cambridge police, unintentionally involving a Secret Service agent and opening the way for what many saw as an overzealous federal prosecution.

Should MIT policies on the collection, provision, and retention of electronic records be reviewed? Following the arrest of Swartz, MIT provided to authorities electronic records showing that he had used a Python script to download millions of journal articles from JSTOR. Swartz’s defense would later argue that MIT violated his constitutional rights in doing so.

Should an MIT education address the personal ethics and legal obligations of technology empowerment? Should it include and understanding of the legal frameworks that govern technology innovation and exploratory behavior? Should it include awareness of the interest in policy questions that will arise in future work of many graduates?

Should MIT increase its efforts to bring its considerable technical expertise and leadership to bear on the study of legal, policy, and societal impact of information and communications technology? The authors of the report (Abelson, economics professor Peter A. Diamond PhD ’63, and Andrew Grosso, a lawyer based in Washington) suggested that through its inaction and reticence during Swartz’s prosecution, MIT did not live up to its reputation for “leadership” in information technology.

What are MIT’s institutional interests in the debate over reforming the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act? In one of the report’s rare displays of opinion, the CFAA under which Swartz was prosecuted is called “a poorly drafted and questionable criminal law as applied to modern computing, one that affects the Internet community as a whole and is widely criticized.” A House subcommittee is working on a bill known as Aaron’s Law aimed at reforming the CFAA.

Should MIT strengthen its activities in support of open access to scholarly publications? It is not known what Swartz intended to do with the millions of journal articles he downloaded, but he was a consistent advocate of open access.

What are MIT’s obligations to members of our extended community? Aaron Swartz had previously worked at the World Wide Web Consortium, and his father is affiliated with the MIT Media Lab. However, Swartz was not an MIT student, which was one reason MIT did not take a public position on the Swartz case, according to the report.

How can MIT draw lessons for its hacker culture from this experience? The report’s authors ask whether “a change in the institutional climate” and “a concern for minimizing risk” bode ill for the “culture of creative disobedience.”

The turnout to the announced gatherings will tell whether the report’s picture of apathy on the part of MIT students towards the Swartz case has changed.

“I would like to make sure that all of us have a much better understanding of what transpired,” Reif told The Tech in August. “We’re dealing with a situation that involves not just creativity, innovation, but also intellectual property and the rule of law. That’s a very important conversation to have right now.”

—Leon Lin