Friends and defenders of Internet activist Aaron Swartz are angrily denouncing the report released Tuesday investigating MIT’s role in his prosecution (and, implicitly, responsibility for his suicide). Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz’s partner at the time of his death, immediately released a harsh statement: “MIT’s behavior throughout the case was reprehensible, and this report is quite frankly a whitewash.”
The reaction is understandable. At first glance, no one who supported Aaron Swartz could be expected to be happy with a report that MIT’s own president, L. Rafael Reif, summarized as supporting his belief that “MIT’s decisions were reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith.”
But after reading the full report, I’m not so sure that President Reif is fairly characterizing the thrust of its analysis. On purely technical issues, the report gives MIT a passing grade, while explaining the sequence of events that pushed MIT to adopt a position of “neutrality” on whether Swartz should be prosecuted. MIT didn’t actively seek Swartz’s prosecution, but it also didn’t make any public comments criticizing or opposing it. (This was in sharp contrast to JSTOR, the online archive that could actually make a case for being harmed by Swartz’s actions. After JSTOR reached a settlement with Swartz, the federal prosecutor’s office was told that the archive opposed further criminal prosecution.)
Swartz advocates looking for an explicit challenge to the neutrality position will be disappointed. But on the question of whether MIT’s actions lived up to its own culture and important position in the world of computer technology, the report is actually quite critical.
Let’s start with the concluding paragraphs:
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