MIT report says it didn't seek federal charges against Aaron Swartz

The institute remained neutral on the case, according to a report reviewing its role

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology never sought a federal prosecution of Aaron Swartz, the programming prodigy who was charged with stealing millions of academic papers from an online archive at MIT, according to a report by the institute.

Swartz committed suicide in January while facing federal charges including computer intrusion, wire fraud and data theft, which could have led to a sentence of 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The case has led to protests against what critics called an overly aggressive prosecution and calls by lawmakers to change the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder later said the government never intended for Swartz to serve more than a few months in prison.

The report, which was requested by MIT President Rafael Reif in January, was issued on Tuesday, the institute said in a press release. It cleared MIT of any wrongdoing but raised questions about whether the institute should have been more actively involved. The report was prepared after conversations with about 50 people, including faculty, students, alumni, staff, police officers and lawyers, and Swartz's family and friends.

MIT remained neutral on Swartz's case from the time of his arrest in January 2011 until his death in January 2013, never making public statements about the merits of the case or whether it should proceed, the report found. The institute didn't request that federal agents get involved in the investigation or federal charges be brought against him. The institute didn't try to influence the prosecutor's decisions on the case, other than saying the government shouldn't assume that MIT wanted Swartz to go to jail, it said.

Swartz was charged with downloading more than 4 million academic articles from the subscription-based JSTOR service, allegedly for the purpose of making them available for free. Critics, including some prominent Internet scholars, said the federal charges against him and the possible maximum penalty they could have carried were out of proportion to the crime.

MIT and JSTOR observed massive downloading of articles beginning in September 2010 and identified it as coming from a laptop connected to MIT's network. But they didn't learn that Swartz was responsible for the downloading until after his initial arrest for breaking and entering, the report found. MIT called in a Cambridge Police detective to help with its investigation of the downloading, and that detective arrived on campus with a federal Secret Service agent, but MIT didn't request the Secret Service's involvement, it said.

But MIT's neutrality stance didn't take into consideration Swartz's contributions to Internet technology, and it didn't take into consideration the background of policy issues "in which MIT people have traditionally been passionate leaders," the report said.

"MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership that we pride ourselves on," the report said.

"From studying this review of MIT's role, I am confident that MIT's decisions were reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith," Reif wrote in a letter released Tuesday. "I have heard from many in our community who believe our actions were proper and justified. Others feel differently."

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Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
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