SAN FRANCISCO – Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Tuesday issued a report clearing itself of wrongdoing in the suicide of an Internet activist who had been under prosecution for plundering academic journal articles from the school.
From the time Aaron Swartz was arrested in January of 2011, MIT remained neutral on whether he should be prosecuted and did not try to influence handling of the case, according to a freshly-released review panel report.
“We recognize the desire for a simple take-away,” the report concluded.
“We can’t offer that. We have not found a silver bullet with which MIT could have simply prevented the tragedy.”
Swartz, who was just 14 when he co-developed the RSS feeds that are a norm for publishing frequent updates online and went on to help launch social news website Reddit, hanged himself in his New York apartment in January.
He was 26 and reported to have been battling depression.
He had been due to stand trial in April for allegedly breaking into a closet at MIT to plug into the computer network and download millions of academic journal articles from the subscription-only JSTOR service.
Swartz had pleaded not guilty to charges of computer fraud, wire fraud and other crimes carrying a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine, charges dismissed after his death.
While exonerating the university, the report raised questions including whether MIT “missed an opportunity” for promoting open access to online information and “for dealing wisely with the risks of computer abuse.”
Swartz’s death ignited an online firestorm over what some called a “draconian” US computer crime law used by allegedly overzealous prosecutors.
An online petition called for the removal of the prosecutors in his case, and some of Swartz’s supporters blamed a 1986 computer crimes statute for his suicide.
“Aaron Swartz faced a more severe prison term than killers, slave dealers and bank robbers,” Ian Millhiser of the Center for American Progress Action Fund said at the time.
“Whatever one thinks of Swartz’s actions, which were likely illegal and probably should be illegal, it is difficult to justify treating him as if he were a more dangerous criminal than someone who flies into a rage and kills their own brother.”
Danah Boyd, a Microsoft researcher who is a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, had argued that Swartz was being made an example of and that MIT “sheepishly played along.”
The report asked whether MIT should weigh into national debate about reforming computer crime law and address legal and ethical Internet questions in its curriculum and policies.
“Because these questions bear so directly on the expertise, interests and values of the people of MIT,” school president L. Rafael Reif said in a released statement, “I believe we should explore them, respectfully debate our differences and translate our learning into constructive action.”