Hal Abelson Appointed by MIT President to Investigate University’s Role in Prosecution of Aaron Swartz


Over the weekend the Internet lost one of its most amazing guiding lights: Aaron Swartz—an early developer of the ever-popular Reddit, did significant work with XML, and even co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification that blogs use to syndicate their work. He has been nothing short of a powerhouse for free information and freedom of speech. Friday, January 11th, he ended his own life by committing suicide after suffering under an extremely arduous campaign of legal prosecution by the US government.

In short, MIT, JSTOR, and the US DoJ are being accused of hounding this young man and Internet activist to suicide.

In the wake of Swartz’s suicide and the rising tide of resentment, MIT president Rafael Reif announced the appointment of professor Hal Abelson, a founding director of Creative Commons, to lead the investigation into MIT’s involvement in the Swartz’s prosecution.

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.

After Swartz’s death, numerous blogs across the Internet immediately turned their attention to his involvement in a case that simply involved downloading academic documents from JSTOR via MIT’s where he prepared them for release to the public domain. This wasn’t something altogether new to him, after liberating almost 20 of US law into the hands of the public via a system called RECAP that enabled citizens to put case law into an easily searched public database.

His foray into JSTOR led to a tangled web of powerful prosecution tactics. First he was indicted through filings by Carmen M. Ortiz, District Attorney of Massachusetts in July with the expectation that for downloading data through MIT’s system he could have faced 35 years in jail and a potential $1 million in fines.

While JSTOR had early involvement in the case, being the offended party, they quickly backed off and dropped out of prosecuting Swartz. According to many of the records, they did so because there didn’t seem to be much there: after all, he’d used the services own rules to download the information he did and didn’t defraud them. Instead it was left to MIT and the USDOJ to continue to prosecution.

SiliconANGLE’s John Furrier has been following the story tightly, as with many of us, Internet activists, freedom of speech, and the general arc of technology tend to bend us towards justice—as it did with Aaron Swartz’s life. That MIT has been quick to look into their own involvement is very important to many of us, as the prosecution of this case seemed no less than exceedingly harsh and beyond the necessary bounds for even a criminal investigation involving “data theft” if what he did could be called that.

Worse for MIT, Swartz was a beloved friend of many of the faculty and staff as well as the student population, their involvement in his persecution looks very grim to the point where even his family believed the institution had a pivotal role in his untimely death.

Abelson a good choice to study MIT’s involvement in obvious narrative of ever-increasing persecution

In 2010, Swartz snuck a laptop into an MIT closet and attached it to an Ethernet cable there in order to connect to and download academic papers from JSTOR. It slowly scraped away available papers as he worked to pull them out from behind a paywall, an act that certainly smacked of a certain level of skirting the law but this lead to numerous charges of hacking and wire fraud by the USDOJ. The initial charges may have cited a potential 35 years in jail, but as of September this year the charges greatly increased and began to tip towards 50 years.

By appointing Professor Abelson, Reif shows that he’s willing to set aside many of the politics that might be involved to see where MIT might sit in this national tragedy. Abelson, member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, was a friend and colleague of Swartz in many of his activist activities and founding member of the Creative Commons license that has reinvented how open source meets open market.

Swartz’s involvement in so many different projects that have led to a freer, more open, and more accessible Internet makes him not just an activist but a hero who sometimes acted on the fringes of legality.

While it’s the job of the prosecution to bring criminals to justice; it’s also their job to not exceed their mandate and grind anyone under their bootheel. With MIT so quickly moving to discover how deep their role goes in this malicious prosecution—it’s becoming obvious that all eyes should turn to the USDOJ and ask the same question.