On Tuesday night, MIT held a memorial for Aaron Swartz, the hacker, activist, and Reddit cofounder who took his own life in January.
At the memorial, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz's girlfriend, questioned whether MIT was doing enough to investigate its role in the federal prosecution that she believes drove Swartz to suicide.
Prosecutors had charged Swartz with violating laws in downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, an academic database, over MIT's network.
While JSTOR declined to press charges, MIT authorities called in the Secret Service, which ultimately led to Swartz's federal prosecution.
After Swartz's suicide, MIT initiated an investigation into its cooperation with authorities, appointing Hal Abelson, a professor well-regarded among Internet-rights activists, to lead it.
But Stinebrickner-Kauffman is concerned that two months on, nothing has come out of the investigation. Here's what she said, according to a prepared version of her remarks:
Immediately after Aaron’s death, MIT’s President Reif announced an investigation into MIT’s involvement in the case, headed by esteemed professor Hal Abelson. I was hopeful. I was hopeful that this investigation might be in the spirit of genuine science, of acknowledging and learning from mistakes. We can never get Aaron back, but MIT can ensure that this kind of injustice and tragedy doesn’t happen again in its community.
But since then I have become less hopeful. I fear that the investigation will instead be in the spirit of a bureaucracy. I fear it will be the kind of “investigation” that Robert Jackall might have written about: A PR exercise, a whitewash. I fear this because of the fact that the General Counsel’s office is itself involved in running the investigation, of which it should be the primary subject. I fear this because it has been two months and my understanding is that neither Aaron’s lawyers nor Aaron’s father have been interviewed by the committee running the investigation, nor has there been any sign that the report will be released until after media interest has blown over.
Another of Aaron’s ideals was asking challenging questions. And that’s why I’m here to ask those questions today.
So here is my challenging question for those of you at this institution who care about its ideals and care about your own moral compasses. Is MIT a scientific enterprise, working to fulfill its mission of bettering the world? Or is MIT a bureaucracy, operating much like for-profit corporations, interested primarily in promoting and protecting itself as an organization?
Here is how you will be able to tell:
If MIT releases its report in a timely fashion. It’s already been two months – how much longer do we have to wait?
If the report represents MIT’s critics in this matter fully and fairly;
If the report acknowledges serious mistakes by MIT;
If the report holds specific people and organizational structures accountable for those mistakes;
If the report refers to the morality of the actions of people at MIT in the context of universal ethics, not in the context of organizational security;
If MIT implements clear, actionable changes that a reasonable person would believe would have prevented Aaron’s persecution and death, had they been implemented before his case.
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