All eyes are on MIT, following the death of Hacker-Activist Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit, Creative Commons and Demand Progress, leading MIT President Rafael Reif to call a thorough analysis of the Institute’s involvement regarding Swartz.
In the fall of 2010, Swartz logged on to MIT’s network and allegedly scraped four million papers from the JSTOR online journal archive. When administrators discovered unusual activity, they booted Swartz’s laptop off the Wi-Fi network, yet Swartz entered a restricted-access computer wiring closet instead, plugging his laptop directly into the campus network.
Swartz was later arrested and charged with 13 counts of felony, including computer hacking and wire fraud. When he appeared in court this past September, he was facing a potential sentence of up to 35 years in prison, as well as a $1 million fine if convicted.
[UPDATE: The United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz has formally dropped the charges against Swartz, citing his death. You can read the document in full here.]
In an official statement released Saturday afternoon, Swartz’s family wrote, “MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles,” placing blame on the Institute and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office for his suicide.
The news shook the online community, who praised Swartz for championing the free culture movement. Researchers began posting PDFs to Twitter to honor his memory and fight to increase open access. Researcher Micah Allen encouraged the Reddit community to join in, writing:
A fitting tribute to Aaron might be a mass protest uploading of copyright-protected research articles. Dump them on Gdocs, tweet the link. Think of the great blu-ray encoding protest but on a bigger scale for research articles.
Twitter instantly started filling up with the hashtag #pdftribute, linking to thousands of different documents, all while fellow activists united at MIT on Sunday to protest the prosecution of Swartz.
MIT President Rafael Reif sent a letter to the community Sunday afternoon, writing he has asked Professor Hal Abelson to spearhead an analysis, which will be shared with the community when Reif receives it. His full letter read:
To the members of the MIT community:
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.
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 hope we will all reach out to those members of our community we know who may have been affected by Aaron’s death. As always, MIT Medical is available to provide expert counseling, but there is no substitute for personal understanding and support.
With sorrow and deep sympathy,
L. Rafael Reif
JSTOR released a statement of their own, writing:
The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge. At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.
MIT’s network went down around 7 p.m. on Sunday, and took hours to start trickling back. A member from the MIT Student Information Processing Board wrote in to Hacker News, claiming the outage was “almost certainly not the result of an attack, just network misconfiguration.” Despite others backing up his claim, however, several still alleged the network was hacked by an activist group after Anonymous tweeted:
Although the group did release a brief message regarding Swartz, they wrote nothing about hacking in to MIT’s system.
As the battle for free and open Internet access continues to rage on, all involved parties will need to examine how to better handle issues like Swartz’s. As one Hacker News commenter said:
To say that this is a catastrophe at many levels is an understatement. This should not have happened. … These things are not worth a person’s life.
Swartz’s funeral will be held on Tuesday, January 15, at Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois. Remembrances of Swartz, as well as donations in his memory, can be submitted to http://rememberaaronsw.com.