Report: MIT couldn’t have prevented Aaron Swartz death

Internet activist Aaron Swartz, seen here at a conference in May 2012, committed suicide in January. (peretzp/flickr)
Internet activist Aaron Swartz, seen here at a conference in May 2012, committed suicide in January. Credit:peretzp/flickr

A report released today by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said the Cambridge school could not have taken any specific action to prevent the suicide of Aaron Swartz, the Internet sharing activist who was facing criminal charges for allegedly hacking into an MIT database. 

“Even today, with the benefit of hindsight, we have not found a silver bullet with which MIT could have simply prevented the tragedy,” the report said.

The report by MIT computer science professor Harold Abelson was given to school officials Friday and was made public today. The report was requested by MIT President L. Rafael Reif in January, which is also when Swartz hanged himself inside his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment.

The more than 160-page report also criticizes MIT for failing to show leadership and taking a neutral position after the 26-year-old, who helped create the Internet program RSS and Demand Progress, was arrested.

“[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,” the report said.

Countless outpourings of sympathy were posted online after Swartz’s death, and even his family and partner released a statement in which they blamed MIT for his suicide.

The report also stated that one of its significant findings was that the school never requested that Swartz be prosecuted. Reif highlighted that finding in a letter to the MIT community.

“I am confident that MIT’s decisions were reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith. The report confirms my trust in the members of the MIT community involved in the Swartz events,” Reif wrote.

Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and a fine of $1 million if convicted on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information and recklessly damaging a protected computer.

It was alleged that Swartz broke into a restricted computer wiring closet in a basement at MIT in order to download a major portion of archived digitized academic journals onto his computer.

The journals were a part of JSTOR, a paid subscription database used to access millions of primary sources. Some universities pay as much as $50,000 for an annual subscription.

Follow Michael Naughton on Twitter @metrobosmike.


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