I — and a few thousand others — got an email today from MIT’s (new) president, Rafael Reif responding to the news that internet activist (and much else) Aaron Swartz had committed suicide. (BJ threads here and here).
In a public statement, Swartz’s family and partner explicitly condemned both the US Attorney’s office and MIT for their actions in response to Swartz’s use of the MIT network to download JSTOR documents:
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office and at M.I.T. contributed to his death.” (as quoted in The New York Times)
Some folks in yesterday’s threads asked me what I knew/thought of MIT’s involvement in Swart’s legal peril. My answer is that I don’t know what MIT did (I thought I knew more than I actually do, but that’s another problem). I now expect to know more — as promised in Reif’s response to both Swartz’s death and the question of MIT’s role as a possible contributor to that loss:
…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.
I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.
I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.
I’ve nothing really to add, except this. While I don’t know President Reif well, he’s someone I respect very highly, partly for his willingness to listen to difficult answers. I think here we see the measure of that commitment. I know that the phrase “internal investigation” seems almost certain to be an oxymoron, but you can measure the seriousness with which Reif is responding to this loss by his choice of the leader of that inquiry, Hal Abelson. I don’t know Hal well either — I’ve only met him a few times. But I do know this: there is simply no one better than Hal to lead an reckoning on the interplay between MIT and Swartz. From his “stodgy biography” (sic!):
“He is a leader in the worldwide movement towards openness and democratization of culture and intellectual resources. He is a founding director of Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, and the Free Software Foundation, and a director of the Center for Democracy and Technology — organizations that are devoted to strengthening the global intellectual commons.”
Hal is ferociously smart, and, as I’ve seen in my few encounters, utterly without fear or favor. I’m not sure how much we at MIT will feel comfort at what we learn through his efforts; I do feel confident indeed that it will be of great value.