Officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology declined to support a petition last fall from Aaron Swartz's attorneys that could have helped the well-known Internet activist avoid prison, one of his attorneys told The Huffington Post Monday.
"As an institution, [MIT] declined to take a formal position in the plea negotiations, even though they recognized that a large segment of the MIT community cared deeply about Aaron and would have wished to have this case resolved in a positive manner," one of his attorneys, Martin Weinberg, said in an interview.
In addition, MIT officials handed over details of Swartz's computer activity to law enforcement without a court order, helping prosecutors build their case against Swartz, his attorneys argued in court filings.
Swartz, 26, who was found dead of an apparent suicide Friday in his Brooklyn home, was facing trial in April for allegedly stealing millions of scholarly journal articles from the digital archive JSTOR using MIT's network.
Swartz suffered from depression, and the details surrounding his death remain unclear. But his supporters say that Swartz's looming federal trial was a contributing factor, and they blame both prosecutors and MIT for aggressively pursuing the case.
Over the weekend, Swartz's family released a statement that said, "Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death. The U.S. Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles."
Swartz's father, Robert Swartz, was an intellectual property consultant for MIT, according to one of his attorneys.
On Sunday, MIT President Rafael Reif said the university would begin an analysis of its involvement with the federal case against Swartz, acknowledging the university "played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011."
"It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy," Reif said.
Swartz was charged with stealing millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR, a digital archive of academic journals. Swartz said he was frustrated by the high cost of accessing scholarly journals and wanted to make them freely available online.
For its part, JSTOR distanced itself from the charges against Swartz. After his death, JSTOR released a statement, saying, "The case is one that we ourselves regretted being drawn into from the outset."
Swartz's supporters criticize MIT for not doing the same.
“Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured ‘appropriate' out,” Lawrence Lessig, a friend of Swartz, legal scholar and copyright activist, wrote over the weekend. “They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its [case]. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the ‘criminal’ who we who loved him knew as Aaron.”
In an interview Monday, Swartz's girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, told The Huffington Post the family's frustration "was less about what MIT did and more about what MIT didn’t do" in Swartz's case.
"MIT could have ended the fiasco with a single statement saying, 'We don't think we were a victims of federal crime,'" she said. "They were urged repeatedly to do so and refused and hid behind a cloak of neutrality."
"MIT made the initial mistake of calling the feds to begin with," Stinebrickner-Kauffman added. "There was no reason for the federal government to be involved. They could have rectified that mistake easily but chose not to."
Kimberly Allen, a spokeswoman for MIT, declined to comment "out of respect for those grieving Aaron’s death and because President Reif has appointed MIT Professor Hal Abelson to lead an analysis of MIT’s actions."
"We await the report that will come out of that effort," she added in a statement.
The university's cooperation with law enforcement was detailed in an October court filing by Swartz's attorney, who was trying to suppress evidence in his case. The filing states that MIT officials handed over "network flow data" and log information from Swartz's laptop to the Secret Service, which had "assumed control of the investigation" into Swartz's case.
MIT officials disclosed this information "without a warrant or court order or subpoena," the filing said. His attorney argued that Swartz was entitled to privacy on his laptop and that evidence gathered by MIT should not be used in court. According to The Tech, the university's student newspaper, the government argued in a separate filing that law enforcement was free to search Swartz's laptop because he had left it unattended on campus.
In an interview Monday, another of Swartz's attorneys, Elliot Peters, told The Huffington Post that MIT officials were "very cooperative with prosecutors" during the investigation. Peters said the university could have handled the case without involving law enforcement.
"MIT could have handled things differently, rather than inviting law enforcement and turning it into a federal criminal case," Peters said.
Noalee Harel contributed research to this report.
Related on HuffPost:
Sir Tim Berners Lee, Founder Of The World Wide Web
He <a href="https://twitter.com/timberners_lee/status/290140454211698689">tweeted</a>: “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”
Quinn Norton, Freelance Journalist And Swartz's Close Friend
"We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion." Read more <a href="http://www.quinnnorton.com/said/?p=644">here</a>.
Danah Boyd, Social Media Researcher And Swartz's Friend
"What I feel right now is anger. I'm angry at Aaron, angry at the state, angry at MIT, angry at anti-hactivist sentiment & angry at myself." Read Boyd's full statement on Swartz's death <a href="http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2013/01/13/aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Cory Doctorow, Science Fiction Author And Swartz's Friend
"Whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn't solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it." Read more <a href="http://boingboing.net/2013/01/12/rip-aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Swartz Family Statement
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.” Read more <a href="http://rememberaaronsw.tumblr.com/post/40372208044/official-statement-from-the-family-and-partner-of-aaron">here</a>.
Lawrence Lessig, Director Of The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics At Harvard University
"The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a 'felon.' For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million-dollar trial in April -- his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it." Read more <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lawrence-lessig/aaron-swartz-suicide_b_2467079.html">here</a>.
JSTOR, Academic Archive
"We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron’s family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew, and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit." Read more <a href="http://about.jstor.org/statement-swartz">here</a>.
L. Rafael Reif, MIT President
"I have asked professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in Fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it." Read more <a href="http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/letter-on-death-of-aaron-swartz.html">here</a>.
Anonymous, Hacktivist Collective
On Sunday night, one day after Swartz's death, Anonymous knocked out Internet access at MIT, <a href="http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N61/anonymous.html" target="_hplink">according to The Tech</a>, a campus newspaper. Two MIT-affiliated websites were rewritten with the following message from the hacktivist group: "Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government's prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for - freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it - enabling the collective betterment of the world through the facilitation of sharing - an ideal that we should all support." Read the full text of the hack <a href="http://gizmodo.com/5975646/anonymous-hacks-mit-in-aaron-swartzs-name">here</a>.
Danny O'Brien, Journalist And Swartz's Friend
"Ada [O'Brien's daughter] cried, then we hugged, then Ada suggested we have a goodbye party, with ice-cream and sprinkles and a movie, and make a board where we could pin all our memories. We laughed at how funny he was. Aaron taught her so well." Read more <a href="http://www.oblomovka.com/wp/2013/01/12/he-was-funny/">here</a>. <strong>Correction:</strong> This slide originally reported that Ada was Aaron Swartz's daughter, not Danny O'Brien's. The Huffington Post regrets this error.