MIT’s role in Aaron Swartz prosecution assailed at memorial

Aaron Swartz

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.

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