L. Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sent out a campuswide email Sunday announcing a probe into the school’s legal battle with Aaron Swartz, the Reddit co-owner and Internet activist who killed himself Friday. Swartz, just 26 at the time of his suicide, had struggled with depression and was facing the possibility of 30 years in prison for downloading 5 million academic articles from JSTOR on MIT’s university network.
Reif appointed Hal Abelson to lead the internal investigation. Abelson was a founding director of Creative Commons and worked with Swartz “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,” according to Reif’s email. The MIT president also promised to “share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.”
Swartz had been an outspoken advocate of Internet transparency. His death has been met with an outpouring of affection and outrage online, both from friends and legal experts who said the “crimes” Swartz committed amounted to little more than exposing a series of legal loopholes.
After Swartz turned in his hard drive, JSTOR, a vast online database of primary source academic articles, told the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston it no longer wished to pursue legal action. MIT, though, has been criticized for being less clear about its intentions and, along with the federal prosecutors, was named in a letter from Swartz’s family as being one of the main contributors to his suicide.
“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,” Reif’s statement read.
“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.”
Anonymous hackers lashed out at MIT on Sunday, temporarily shutting down the Cambridge, Mass., university’s website before posting a message saying Swartz was hounded to his death.
“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 Aaron died fighting for,” wrote Anonymous. “Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism; it had tragic consequences.”