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January 15, 2013 12:23 PM MIT and Aaron Swartz

By Henry Farrell

Larry Lessig, in his justifiably angry post on Aaron Swartz’s death says the following:

Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.

I have heard the same thing from other people – those involved in trying to help Aaron believe that if the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had said it didn’t believe that Aaron’s acts were felonies, it would have been extremely difficult for the Department of Justice to proceed in pressing its preposterous charges. Had MIT done the right thing, Aaron Swartz would almost certainly be alive today.

There was certainly internal debate within MIT. David Glenn, in his last piece for the Chronicle reported:

“What Aaron Swartz did was a clear violation of the rules and protocols of the library and the community,” says Christopher Capozzola, an associate professor of history and acting associate dean of the school of humanities, arts, and social sciences. “But the penalties in this case, and the sources of those penalties, are really remarkable. These penalties really go against MIT’s culture of breaking down barriers.”

There was also pressure from prominent alumni:

“MIT has a duty to get down on its knees and beg that this prosecution be dropped,” says Richard M. Stallman, a Boston-based programmer and prominent “free culture” advocate who attended graduate school at MIT in the 1970s.

Academic administrators read the Chronicle with some attention, especially when it comes to their own institution. They can’t possibly have been unaware of the potential fallout – not the risk of suicide, but the risk both of sending someone to prison for the crime of mass-downloading journal articles, and of condoning legal theories which criminalize a wide variety of activities in breach of terms of service, activities that have been committed by nearly every quasi-sophisticated network user at some point.

Capozzola’s description of the issues seems to me to have been an entirely reasonable position. I can understand how administrators in the university would reasonably have been royally pissed at what Aaron did, if the facts were more or less as they have been presented. What I cannot understand is why they didn’t publicly adopt a position along these lines – saying, quite clearly, that Aaron’s actions were unacceptable abuses of the network, but also stating, equally clearly, that they did not merit felony charges, on stretched and dubious interpretations of the law, that potentially had decades of jail time attached to them. I particularly cannot understand why MIT- an institution which as Cappozola says, has a tradition of openness and of tolerating (and indeed celebrating) creative rule-breaking didn’t step up to the plate. Again – it didn’t have to condone what Aaron did. It merely had to make it clear that these actions did not constitute major felonies, and that prosecuting Aaron as a felon was wildly inappropriate.

I know that MIT faculty, MIT students, and MIT alumni read this blog. I respectfully suggest that they start contacting the people that they know at the university looking for some answers from the administration. Why did MIT not take action on this when it could have done some good? Is MIT’s official position that breaches of terms of service do indeed constitute felonies with decades of associated prison time? Or that they sometimes do, and sometimes don’t? Or some version of quod non scripsi, non scripsi? I don’t think that MIT can slide through this without explaining its inaction, since that inaction had quite clear, and quite predictable results (not leading predictably to Aaron’s suicide, but leading, extremely predictably to the Kafkaesque situation which precipitated his suicide).

Update: two commenters point to this email apparently circulated internally within MIT, in which the university’s president promises an internal investigation of how MIT made its choices, and whether better choices might have been available. So consider this post revised to a request that people hold the administration’s feet to the fire, and circulate the report externally as well as internally.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.