MIT Releases Hal Abelson Report on the Aaron Swartz Case

MIT has just released the long-awaited report by Hal Albelson about MIT’s involvement in the Aaron Swartz case: The 183-page report is here. I’m going to be reading it today and plan to blog on it more later, but for now here’s the conclusion:

As the length of this report demonstrates, the narrative of MIT’s involvement in the events around Aaron Swartz’s arrest and prosecution is extensive and intricate. This Review Panel hopes that we have set out the history of events with sufficient detail, clarity, and objectivity so that readers can consider the range of options that MIT faced, recognize MIT’s actual choices as made in the context of events, and draw their own conclusions. We have also suggested areas where the Institute might learn from these events, including through community discussion and self-examination. Some of the issues that MIT faces transcend the particular events involving Aaron Swartz, and reflect broader concerns that emerged during our investigations. These include:

• The challenges of preserving open environments and open access in a digitally connected world that is increasingly apprehensive about computer crime and information misuse
• The dilemmas that arise in responding to members of our community—and our extended community—whose exploits land them in legal trouble
• The responsibility to help brilliant and innovative students navigate the ethical choices that accompany their technical empowerment
• The opportunity to reinforce MIT’s institutional leadership in information technology by increasing scholarship and expertise in information law and policy

The Review Panel encourages MIT’s administration to take the occasion of this report to stimulate discussions across the MIT community about these issues and the others described in Part V.

In concluding this review, we recognize the desire for a simple take-away, a conclusion that “if MIT had only done this rather than that, things would have turned out OK.” We can’t offer one. There were too many choices, too many might-have-beens, too great an emotional shock, and a public response that has been supercharged by the power of the Internet, the same power that Aaron Swartz epitomized and that he helped to create. Even today, with the benefit of hindsight, we have not found a silver bullet with which MIT could have simply prevented the tragedy.

If the Review Panel is forced to highlight just one issue for reflection, we would choose to look to the MIT administration’s maintenance of a “neutral” hands-off attitude that regarded the prosecution as a legal dispute to which it was not a party. This attitude was complemented by the MIT community’s apparent lack of attention to the ruinous collision of hacker ethics, open-source ideals, questionable laws, and aggressive prosecutions that was playing out in its midst. As a case study, this is a textbook example of the very controversies where the world seeks MIT’s insight and leadership.

A friend of Aaron Swartz stressed in one of our interviews that MIT will continue to be at the cutting edge in information technology and, in today’s world, challenges like those presented in Aaron Swartz’s case will arise again and again. With that realization, “Neutrality on these cases is an incoherent stance. It’s not the right choice for a tough leader or a moral leader.”

In closing, our review can suggest this lesson: MIT is respected for world-class work in information technology, for promoting open access to online information, and for dealing wisely with the risks of computer abuse. The world looks to MIT to be at the forefront of these areas. Looking back on the Aaron Swartz case, the world didn’t see leadership. As one person involved in the decisions put it: “MIT didn’t do anything wrong; but we didn’t do ourselves proud.”

It has not been the Panel’s charge for this review to make judgments, rather only to learn and help others learn. In doing so, let us all recognize that, by responding as we did, MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership that we pride ourselves on. Not meeting, accepting, and embracing the responsibility of leadership can bring disappointment. In the world at large, disappointment can easily progress to disillusionment and even outrage, as the Aaron Swartz tragedy has demonstrated with
terrible clarity.

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