MIT Holds Memorial for Aaron Swartz as Attorneys Seek Release of Documents

MIT Holds Memorial for Aaron Swartz as Attorneys Seek Release of Documents

Attorney's representing Aaron Swartz's estate filed a motion in Federal Court today, seeking to lift a protective order that prevents disclosure of much of the material the government provided Swartz's defense. This culminated a week in which Swartz's father, Robert, told a memorial audience assembled at MIT that the MIT General Counsel's Office was impeding the Institute's internal investigation of its participation in the prosecution of his son. Aaron Swartz, 26, took his own life in January while facing a 13 count federal indictment under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for downloading academic papers from the JSTOR repository using a computer concealed at MIT. Swartz's prosecution has come under intense criticism from Swartz's friends, family and colleagues, has prompted a petition to the White House requesting removal of the prosecutor, and a Congressional investigation of the decisions that led to the prosecution.

Swartz's attorneys who, it was revealed this week, had previously filed formal complains about prosecutorial misconduct by the lawyers leading the government's case, argue that the public interest in the Swartz case far outweighs any privacy interests in keeping the documents sealed. While Swartz's attorneys agree that truly private information, like Social Security numbers, should be protected, they argue that the names of all the law enforcement officers and witnesses should become known. They note that all this material would have become public when this case went to trial, thus, there was no expectation of privacy when, for example, email was provided to the government by JSTOR and MIT. They add that they have gotten a request from a Congressional committee for this material, a request they are currently unable to honor.

Robert Swartz, a long time consultant to the MIT Media Lab, the host of the memorial, told of pleading with MIT officials to reassess their role in assisting the prosecution and expressed bafflement that, due the protective order, he is unable to discuss some of what he knows about his son's prosecution with Hal Abelson, the MIT faculty member appointed by MIT's President, L. Rafael Reif, to examine MIT's decisions. Aaron Swartz's partner, Tarren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, was even more pointed, reading to the audience MIT's mission statement and declaring that Swartz embodied what that mission entailed. Stinebrickner-Kauffman expressed diminishing confidence in MIT's investigation, wondering whether it would be more about bureaucratic preservation than finding the truth and said that its failure to drop its objection to release of documents was a sign of bad faith. Stinebrickner-Kauffman's words received an extended round of applause from the assembled audience.

Ethan Zuckerman, Director of MIT's Center for Civic Media and a long-time friend of Swartz, spoke of the intense reactions to Swartz's death. His first reaction to the hearing of the suicide was intensely personal, Zuckerman said, but his students - most of whom hadn't even heard of Swartz until his death - wouldn't allow that, insisting on discussions and that, in every one of his class meetings, there's been an Aaron Swartz reference by a student.

Cory Doctorow at the MIT Media Lab

Earlier this month, science fiction author Cory Doctorow, who also knew Swartz for over a decade, came to the Media Lab on a book tour for his latest novel, Homeland. Doctorow described how, when he needed a plot device for the book - a digital method for grassroots activism that would somehow overcome campaign finance problems - he reached out to Swartz who, within a matter of hours, replied to his email with a fully realized design for such a tool. Doctorow, rather than focusing on MIT issues, spoke about the American criminal justice system, as system that, he said, results in 97% of cases being resolved by coercive plea bargains. He noted the increasing controls on what one can do with a with one's own computers. Digital Rights Management restrictions already control all sorts of functions on electronic devices. In an age when more and more of us will have to be using hearing aids - computer-controlled amplifiers - will their be restrictions on what we can hear? And, with a legal regime that is hostile to the sort of reverse engineering necessary to understand the function of devices, how would we ever know?

Abelson's report to the MIT community is expected by the end of the month.