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Summary:

Friends, family and colleagues memorialized computer activist Aaron Swartz and put MIT’s role in his prosecution front and center on Tuesday afternoon at MIT Media Lab.

The role that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology played in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz was front and center at a memorial service for Swartz Tuesday afternoon at the MIT Media Lab. Swartz, the 26-year old co-owner of Reddit and founder of DemandProgress, committed suicide in January. He was facing trial on charges that he illegally downloaded too many documents from MIT’s JSTOR library.

IMG_0224Swartz’s partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman and his father Robert Swartz both called on MIT to open up its investigation into its own actions and to do it soon. Much of the coverage after Swartz’s death focused on the role of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who was slammed by critics for pursuing an overzealous prosecution for a minor offense. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and others have defended the prosecution.  But there was little mention of Ortiz or the U.S. prosecutors today. At MIT, it was MIT being scrutinized.

After Swartz’s death, the school announced an internal investigation into its actions. “I was hopeful that it could learn from mistakes made and make sure this injustice and tragedy is not repeated,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman told a couple hundred people at the event. “I have since become less hopeful,” she said.

“I fear a PR exercise, a whitewash. The [MIT] general counsel is running this. Aaron’s lawyers and father have not been interviewed and there is no sign that the report will be released,” she said.

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman

She said that while MIT’s stated mission of generating and disseminating knowledge is perfectly aligned with Swartz’s ethic, the school has diverged from that mission, as evidenced by the fact that it could have stopped the prosecution several times.

“MIT called in the Secret Service when it could have handled the issue internally. When people called on them to drop the case, MIT refused. MIT helped the prosecution while it refused to provide access to the defense,” she said.

It’s been two months since Swartz’s death and there is no report she said.

Other speakers, including some employed at the school, also worried about MIT’s standing here and how this issue affects its reputation.

White board at Swartz Memorial.

White board at Swartz Memorial.

MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, who hosted the event, acknowledged his conflicted role as a member of the institution and a friend and colleague of Swartz. Introducing the proceedings, Ito noted: “I have an official voice and a personal voice. If it wasn’t for the official voice, I would have spoken out more on this,” he noted.

  1. We don’t expect MIT to issue a criticism of itself, do we? That would require almost a saint.

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    1. I do. I expect MIT to operate at a higher level of ethics than that of the Criminal Justice System.

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      1. Have you considered that if MIT issued a statement saying “MIT is partially responsible for the suicide of Aaron Swartz” they would immediately open themselves to multiple lawsuits? Why would they do that?

        I used to expect colleges to have a higher mission than businesses (“providing an educated citizenry” and all that), until colleges started burdening 22 year olds with $100,00 debts. Now I know “higher education” is just as money-hungry as any corporation. I even read where a college representative said his institution needed to keep raising tuition so they could buy better lab equipment, as this would allow them to successfully compete with other universities for donations to their endowment!

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  2. I don’t know what’s more disturbing, the fact that they used the memorial to blame someone for his suicide, or the fact that it’s everyone’s fault but his own. While he shouldn’t have been pressed so hard about his JSTOR downloads, I highly doubt that’s the absolute only reason he committed suicide. It’s ridiculous to take a mental condition (depression, etc) that leads to suicide and blame it on a school or a lawyer.

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    1. We may never know for sure, since Aaron didn’t leave a written suicide note.

      But I learned from Alec Resnick that Aaron had evidently used his computer the day he took his life. They are in the process of breaking the encryption on Aaron’s computer so as to release the contents of his hard drives, per the terms of his Will. It’s likely there will be some clues to Aaron’s mindset, once that encryption is broken.

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      1. I wasn’t meaning you! I just think it’s sad that his memory can’t be just cherished for what he did in his short time (who doesn’t creep reddit all of the time?) and that it’s becoming more about pointing fingers, that’s all.

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      2. Also, I agree those are most likely contributing factors, I just don’t feel like the sole blame should be laid on either party.

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      3. @ a. turner,
        it don’t think it’s about pointing fingers; rather it’s about continuing Aaron’s pursuit of freeing up information to all and interrogating institutions or peoples who have the power to control the dissemination of this info. MIT being one of them. It is only fitting that Aaron’s memorial is politically charged and is an example of what Aaron was doing while he was alive. There is no point in putting blame on anyone or thing (especially in this case since it’s a conglomerate of things), the life is already lost. There is a point in making institutions like MIT (which is supposed to represent higher thought and a sense of ethics) accountable for the ideals they hold. And they did not!

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    2. You have no idea what you are talking about!!!!

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  3. When I was a kid and made Mrs Murphy’s door bell ring and no one was there, it was called a ” prank”, This is all that Aaron Swartz did. Someone needs to be held accountable. The computer was comprimized, whoopee doo. keep up the good work of not letting” them ‘ forget.

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  4. a.turner: I couldn’t agree with you more! Disturbing indeed – The fact that Aron’s family used MIT’s memorial to blame it was, personally, extremely unethical.

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  5. Here’s how MIT handles its internal investigations:

    An MIT student blatantly plagiarizes an invention, using stolen IP to win a prestigious MIT competition: http://chronicle.com/article/Who-Deserves-MITs-200000/128810/

    Shocked (and caught) MIT investigates itself and finds that it was all a big mix-up:
    http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N26/coolchip.html. Hey, everyone makes mistakes, right?

    Expect a whitewash. The MIT administration would not know integrity if it bit them on the ass.

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  6. There are many unanswered questions here, some facts, and if unanswered will lead to speculation – or what some call an educated guess. Lets all face a simple fact, there are no institutions which are not systemically tainted in the USA – that is, run by profit margin through administration rather than for some noble cause like truth, discovery, and mutual innovation.

    This is not to say that these causes cannot be attained, but that they are all routed through the labyrinth of profitability whose main aim always ends with the product or discovery enriching the moneyed few first and foremost. Teachers are no longer assessed by their contribution to humanity but are made commodities that attract more capital (you can see this by the rarity of tenured positions today). To be cont.

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  7. So if it is public money the people pay many times over for access, if it is private money that it is earmarked for privatized profit for whoever funded whatever.

    When we talk about Aaron Swartz we have to ask why was the Secret Service there from day one, and if MIT called on them, why? Chances are that they were following Aaron and inserted themselves into the process, and the institution which has become a craven coward submitted all the material to them for the push to prosecution (fearing it would lose favor at the public trough). There was and is a sweep taking place in Washington on this issue of not only knowledge academic, but knowledge and information which the people demand – many are sitting in prison right now awaiting trial, and this all happened around the same time that Aaron was harassed by these federal entities. Do you think they…cont.

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  8. Did you think they forgot SOPA and PIPA and Aaron’s leadership role in closing this legislation down? I don’t think so, so they we watching him carefully and dreamt about his head on the wall like a trophy on their wall of shame. There was a vendetta on, and Aaron was the easy target.

    That is all I have to say, and if you think there will be anything substantive coming out of MIT you are in for a long long wait. The duty that we have is to shake these foundations, and to progress for the people, globally. Institutions academic and other will either listen to and follow the people or they will crumble, and new ones with correct loyalties to the people will be built in their place. We must take the resounding blow of losing Aaron right now, but will eventually gain much in his memory and much more for the people – knoweldge is power, power to the people.

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  9. Guys: First of all – I sympathize with Aron’s family’s pain as losing a loved one it’s never that easy. What the family did/ expressed at the MIT’s memorial, personally, it was very unethical: Blaming MIT for Aron’s OWN acts. Aron was a grownup/ smart boy and he took his life because he WANTED. Indeed, the prosecutors were very harsh on the case but his family, specially his dad were supporting him on every step of this case. To me that was a rebel’s move as if you read and look at the history of this case – Aron was trying to rebel against his father as Robert was a contractor at MIT and Aron was NOT an MIT student.(Aron was not an easy kid – he was going against his father’s principles as Robert was a was an intellectual property consultant for MIT) He knew people at MIT and used his connections to get in to the IT room. Even after … knowing that what he did it was wrong/ illegal … he kept going back – Also the fact that ARON took his life after everything that his dad did for him to me is a slap on the parent’s face. Even though Aron was at fault his dad, Robert, stuck by him. You are dealing with MIT here and not a back yard type of school. MIT have principles and rules and the fact that they didn’t drop the case it shows their integrity which is a big part of who they are. On a side note -Hal Abelson which is extremely competent is leading an analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that ARON was first perceived unusual activity on the MIT’s network in fall 2010 up to the present. – Lastly, what the family had to say at Aron MIT memorial was classless and unethical.
    My analogy is: “ If you know that the pool that you are going to jump is full of sharks you have to be ready to deal with the consequences – just don’t blame the water’s temperature if you lose a leg since the decision to jump it was your and not the sharks” – GET IT?! –ARON using his white bicycle helmet as a mask on January 6, 2011, attempted to cover his face from the cameras as he tries to retrieve the computer equipment that he left weeks before. That was a felony! ARON broke the room as an immature men and took his life as an immature boy as he was not strong enough to own his own acts. It is very unfortunate and it is NOT MIT’s fault that ARON took his life.

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    1. You criticize Aaron Swartz and claim to know so much about him, but you can’t even get his name right. You misspelled it 13 times. Now I’ll criticize the prosecution. In justice, there is such a thing as making the punishment fit the crime. Swartz downloaded documents which the FBI decided were, in fact, public. (From Wikipedia.) That was his crime. As a result, Swartz could have been imprisoned for 35 years and fined $1 million. That is a punishment that does not even remotely fit the crime, and would have been a terrible miscarriage of justice.

      “If you know that the pool that you are going to jump is full of sharks…” I doubt Swartz had any idea how many sharks the government had in its pool.

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  10. To be clear: What i was trying to convey in this story is that Aaron’s partner and father blamed MIT for not stopping the prosecution which they see as overzealous. THey never said they blamed him specifically for his death.

    There is a difference. Aaron was depressed. The prosecution made it worse. but this was all about the prosecution not the suicide per se.

    thanks for your comments. it’s clear that this sparks really deep and raw feelings.

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    1. For what it’s worth, neither Taren nor Bob Swartz believed Aaron was depressed. But Aaron did say he was on an emotional roller-coaster ride.

      One of the features of being on a “crazy roller coaster” is that one’s emotions rapidly oscillate between both familiar and unfamiliar extremes. At times, one has high hopes. The next moment, one has high anxiety that plunges into despair.

      I can confirm from personal experience that even mundane and commonplace encounters with the legal system can cause debilitating gastro-intestinal distress, migraine headaches, and long-lasting clinical depression.

      The entire US legal system (including criminal, civil, and family court divisions) is routinely used in an outrageously abusive manner.

      Those who are traumatized, stigmatized, or victimized by such shenanigans within the legal system may suffer what has come to be called Legal Abuse Syndrome.

      If you’re lucky, Legal Abuse Syndrome will merely leave you disillusioned or depressed, without plunging you into a state of irreversible despair.

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