New report examines MIT and JSTOR’s roles in the Aaron Swartz prosecution

Aaron Swartz

New details have emerged about the events leading up to Aaron Swartz’s prosecution for downloading massive amounts of content from an online academic library using the MIT network. For example, early on the university wasn’t all that concerned about finding whoever was responsible for the downloads of 4.8 million articles, but insiders at the JSTOR library wanted more action,, according to Boston Globe account:

“…a number of JSTOR’s internal e-mails show a much angrier face in the months that Swartz eluded capture, with employees sharing frustration about MIT’s “rather tepid level of concern.” JSTOR officials repeatedly raised the prospect, among themselves, of going to the police, e-mails show.”

As it turned JSTOR did not call the police itself or ask MIT to do so, its president told the Globe.

Another key tidbit:

“[MIT] knew for 2 1/2 months which campus building the downloader had operated out of before anyone searched it for him or his laptop — even as the university told JSTOR they had no way to identify the interloper.

And once Swartz was unmasked, the ambivalence continued. MIT never encouraged Swartz’s prosecution, and once told his prosecutor they had no interest in jail time. However, e-mails illustrate how MIT energetically assisted authorities in capturing him and gathering evidence — even prodding JSTOR to get answers for prosecutors more quickly — before a subpoena had been issued.”

MIT’s standoffishness ended in January when it searched for and found the hidden laptop tapping its network. At that point, the downloads and whoever was behind them became, in the words of one staffer, “a federal case.” The Cambridge police were called, the Secret Service got involved, and surveillance was set up. All of that led to Swartz’s unmasking. In January 2013, Swartz died of an apparent suicide in Brooklyn.

At a memorial service for Swartz last March, friends and family assailed MIT for aiding an overzealous prosecution of Swartz, who co-founded Reddit and was a passionate proponent of free- and open-access to research and other information. In 2008, Swartz wrote the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto to press that case.

Swartz’s partner and family believe that the prosecution of Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — which meant he faced up to 50 years in prison — overwhelmed him and led to his death. He was 26 years old.

This story was updated April 4, at 12:21 p.m. PDT to reflect that while JSTOR insiders wanted more aggressive action, they did not push MIT to go to the authorities about the massive downloads.

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