MIT’s Embrace of Web Freedom Clashes With Hacking Case

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- the first university to require professors to make their work freely available after publication -- has posted class materials online for a decade. Last year it joined with Harvard to offer free courses on the Web. MIT’s faculty includes a hacker who was fined $10,000 for releasing a computer virus.

Yet when Aaron Swartz broke into an MIT network to download millions of research articles he intended to post publicly, he found himself in a tricky legal area that MIT itself hasn’t resolved. U.S. prosecutors indicted him on fraud charges. Swartz, who advocated that access to information shouldn’t be restricted to people who can afford it, faced as long as 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted. The 26-year-old hanged himself in his Brooklyn, New York, apartment Jan. 11.

Now students, faculty and top administrators at MIT are asking why the campus, known for its openness, got involved in the case in the first place. An online petition by the MIT Society for Open Science calling on the school to apologize for its role in Swartz’s prosecution had more than 220 signatures.

“A lot of people think there’s more MIT could have done or there’s alternative approaches the Justice Department could have taken” to Swartz’s case, said Zach Hynes, a computer science student, sitting in the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based school’s student union. “Obviously what Swartz was trying to do was make information available and that resonates with a lot of people around here.”

MIT Probe

MIT President Rafael Reif said Jan. 13 that he ordered an investigation of the institute’s role in Swartz’s case. The school declined to comment beyond that statement “both out of respect for those grieving Aaron’s death and because we do not want to get ahead of the forthcoming analysis,” spokeswoman Kimberly Allen said in an e-mail.

In 2009, MIT’s faculty voted to require that professors make their work publicly available after publication.

The policy “is a signal to the world that we speak in a unified voice; that what we value is the free flow of ideas,” then-faculty Chairman Bish Sanyal said at the time.

MIT has been a haven for computer hackers and advocates of free access to information. Richard Stallman, who founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985, was an MIT computer scientist. Robert Tappan Morris, who was fined $10,000 and ordered to perform 400 hours of community service for releasing a “worm” computer virus in 1988, is on MIT’s computer-science faculty.

Hacking ‘Spirit’

The university’s community is asking why Swartz didn’t get the same level of support. Students want to know whether MIT could have at least spoken out in support of Swartz’s ideals of increasing access to scholarly research.

“What he did, downloading MIT journals, is definitely illegal, but I’m not sure what’s so bad about it,” said Chen Lian, a sophomore math major. “The institute admires the spirit of hacking, but the problem is when this conflicts with legal issues. We should figure out a way to solve the problem.”

There’s some concern that MIT was “more vigorous in this whole incident than it had to be,” said Seth Mnookin, who teaches science writing at the school. Many colleagues he spoke with “felt aligned with what Swartz was doing and believed in what he believed in,” he said.

Researchers around the world posted their articles online in a tribute to Swartz and his open-access goals. Hackers operating under the name Anonymous said in a Twitter post Jan. 13 that they initiated a denial of service attack on MIT’s website. The university temporarily shut down the site.

‘Broken’ System

Professors at MIT and many other universities favor open access to their work because it allows others in their field to acknowledge, use and build on existing research, said Jonathan Eisen, chairman of the advisory board at Public Library of Science Biology, an online open-access research journal. Some journals charge hundreds of dollars for annual subscriptions, blocking access to poorly funded libraries and universities, Eisen said.

Professors don’t get paid to write for journals, and many journals that exist solely online nonetheless charge high prices, he said.

“What we need to do is rewrite the entire publishing system,” Eisen said. “It wouldn’t cost money -- it would probably save money -- and the system is broken beyond recognition.”

Swartz was accused in a 2011 federal indictment of gaining unauthorized access to JSTOR, a subscription-service for academic journals, and downloading more than 4 million of them. According to a federal indictment, Swartz made a number of attacks on the JSTOR system from Sept. 24, 2010 to Jan. 6, 2011, while he was a fellow at Harvard University’s Safra Center for Ethics, according to the indictment.

Charges ‘Legit’

Using a variety of computer aliases, Swartz repeatedly signed on to the JSTOR database and downloaded files as quickly as possible. JSTOR tried to stop the theft of files, first by blocking Swartz, and then by shutting down access to the database for all of MIT.

While JSTOR settled its claims with Swartz, the Justice Department charged him with wire fraud, computer fraud, unauthorized access to a protected computer and computer damage.

Those charges were “pretty much legit,” according to Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor who specializes in computer crime.

“The charges against Swartz were based on a fair reading of the law,” he said in a blog post. “Once the decision to charge the case had been made, the charges brought here were pretty much what any good federal prosecutor would have charged.”

Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz dismissed the case yesterday in a federal court filing, citing Swartz’s death.

Hacking Criticism

Swartz’s activities, prosecution and suicide have led to mixed feelings among some open-access advocates. His illegal downloading portrays the goals of the movement inaccurately and gives it a bad name, said Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project, in a blog post.

“I could not join those who praised his action, and I didn’t want to pile on by repeating a criticism I’d already made public,” Suber said in the post. “I was sad that this whip-smart, forward-thinking guy took that turn and faced prison. I’m sad now for a much larger reason.”

Reif’s announcement of the investigation suggests that the administration is very concerned about the case, Mnookin said.

“Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism,” Reif said in the Jan. 13 statement. “I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions that MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.”

The case was U.S. v. Swartz, 11-cr-10260, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston)

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