After news about Internet activist Aaron Swartz’s suicide on Friday started to spread across the Internet, many at least partly blamed MIT for the 26-year-old hacktivist’s death. This included his own family, which openly criticized the way MIT handled Swartz’s case after the school detected his attempts to download millions of articles from JSTOR in 2011. MIT president L. Rafael Reif today announced that he has 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.”
Abelson is the Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and an IEEE Fellow. He teaches, among other things, a course on the “Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier” at MIT. He is also a founding director of Creative Commons and Public Knowledge, as well as the Free Software Foundation.
In his letter, MIT president Reif notes that he wants Abelson’s report to summarize the options MIT had when it learned of the case and “the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.”
Here is the full letter:
To the members of the MIT community:
Yesterday we received the shocking and terrible news that on Friday in New York, Aaron Swartz, a gifted young man well known and admired by many in the MIT community, took his own life. With this tragedy, his family and his friends suffered an inexpressible loss, and we offer our most profound condolences. Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism.
Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.
I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.
I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. 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.
I hope we will all reach out to those members of our community we know who may have been affected by Aaron’s death. As always, MIT Medical is available to provide expert counseling, but there is no substitute for personal understanding and support.
With sorrow and deep sympathy,
L. Rafael Reif
JSTOR, the service Swartz was accused of illegally downloading articles from, published its own statement over the weekend. In it, JSTOR says that “the case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge.” JSTOR also notes that “Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”