Before Aaron Swartz’s Death, MIT Could Have Led a Debate on Open Information. Why Didn’t It?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
April 1 2014 3:38 PM

“Dissonant Instincts”

Aaron Swartz’s death proved that MIT has not yet come to terms with its culture of openness.

Aaron Swartz
More than a year later, MIT is still grappling with the questions at the center of Aaron Swartz's case.

Photo by Noah Berger/Reuters

On Sunday, the Boston Globe ran a long story about Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist who killed himself in January 2013. At the time of his death, Swartz was under federal indictment for allegedly accessing the computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology without explicit authorization and using that network to download millions of documents from a subscription database called JSTOR. Since then, MIT—which maintained institutional silence throughout the Swartz case—has drawn sharp criticism from those who feel that its conduct was unworthy of a great university.

The Globe’s story centers on MIT’s role in the Swartz saga and particularly the “dissonant instincts the university grappled with” in the Swartz case: its professed commitment to openness versus its need to maintain network security. Drawing on hundreds of internal emails sent by MIT and JSTOR employees during the time of Swartz’s alleged crimes, the Globe does a good job indicating the roots of this dissonance. The piece helps explain why MIT failed to live up to its professed ideals in the Swartz case—and why the case remains so very relevant now, more than a year after Aaron Swartz’s death.

More so than any other top-tier university in the United States, if not the world, MIT attempts to foster a culture of openness. The front doors to its main building are rarely locked. Its computer network is configured for easy guest access. Students are tacitly encouraged to pull elaborate pranks that often involve breaking and entering. The share-and-share-alike “hacker ethic” that was born in MIT’s computer labs during the 1950s and ’60s has become part of university lore. To a very real extent, MIT encourages its affiliates to follow their curiosity wherever it may lead them—even if it leads them somewhere they are not explicitly authorized to be.

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But the university has failed to consider the broader implications of this philosophy.

Over the past several decades, the rise of digital networks has brought the concept of open access into the mainstream, which is of great relevance to anyone who has ever downloaded an MP3 file or evaded a pay wall to read a news story. The rise of digital file-sharing and online publishing has raised questions for publishers, for authors, and for information consumers worldwide. Among them: Are physical property and intellectual property functionally indistinguishable? Is downloading 25,000 files from an academic database the same thing as stealing 25,000 books from a library, as one JSTOR employee suggested in an email? What are the moral obligations of publishers and consumers in a world where data holds no corporeal form and can be disseminated with unprecedented ease?

These are serious questions that deserve serious consideration. And if any university ought to be at the forefront of this discussion, it’s MIT, with its unlocked doors and its “hacker ethic.” As the world’s center of technological innovation, MIT is uniquely positioned to lead the debate on open information, to produce scholarship that helps clarify and frame these issues for the rest of us. And yet the university has not engaged with the concept of openness on any meaningful conceptual level.

In July, an independent panel convened by MIT released a report largely absolving the university of blame in the Swartz affair. Swartz’s family blasted the report as “hyper-legal” and a “whitewash,” but I actually thought it was pretty interesting, particularly the section about how “Aaron Swartz’s suicide has embroiled MIT in an Internet uproar that the Institute did not anticipate and with which it is not well prepared to grapple as a legal, policy, or social phenomenon”:

If MIT had had a locus of scholarly activity around issues of information access during Swartz’s arrest and prosecution, one can imagine that there would have been more active participation by the community as events were transpiring, more appetite for engaging the larger issues the prosecution brought to light, and more recognition of MIT’s opportunity and responsibility to play a leadership role.

MIT has absolutely no excuse for being “not well prepared to grapple” with the political and conceptual issues that have come to define the Internet age. Great universities are supposed to take on epochal issues. That’s one of their most important functions in a democratic society. But not only had MIT as an institution not bothered to think about these issues, it was completely unaware that it should have been thinking about these issues.

You can see this in the university’s first responses to Swartz’s JSTOR stunt back in 2010 and 2011. As the Globe story demonstrates, the IT employees who first discovered Swartz’s network incursion were unsure how to react. In the absence of any strong counterargument, it came to be seen as criminal activity. “We need to escalate the seriousness of our response,” one employee wrote in January 2011. “This looks like grand theft.” MIT’s complete lack of institutional leadership on IP issues effectively encouraged its employees to conclude that bulk downloading was theft, rather than pausing to admit any other possibilities. And so MIT Police became involved. You know the rest of the story.

Note: I am currently writing a book about Swartz, free culture, and the open access movement. If you want to learn more about the project, or receive periodic updates about the writing and reporting process, send me an email at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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