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MIT review cites missed chances before death of Net activist

Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008. REUTERS/Noah Berger
Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008. REUTERS/Noah Berger

By Ross Kerber

BOSTON (Reuters) - Reviewers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said on Tuesday the school could have taken steps that would have reduced pressure on Internet activist Aaron Swartz such as taking a public stand against his controversial prosecution.

Swartz, 26, killed himself in January, two years after he was arrested and later charged by the U.S. Justice Department for hacking into MIT's network to download millions of academic articles, potentially to make them freely available to the public.

Swartz's death became a flashpoint in a broader debate over how far prosecutors should go in enforcing U.S. computer rules, and raised questions over whether MIT, a traditional leader in technology matters should have spoken up in his defense.

An internal MIT review found that while leaders of the elite school may have been trying to act with restraint, they paid little attention to Swartz's case as it was developing and did not question the law underlying the charges.

"MIT's position may have been prudent, but it did not duly take into account the wider background of information policy against which the prosecution played out and in which MIT people have traditionally been passionate leaders," according to the report. The reviewers also wrote that "...by responding as we did, MIT missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership that we pride ourselves on."

After Swartz' death, his partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman criticized what she described as MIT's "indifference" to the matter.

In a statement on Tuesday from her Twitter handle, @TarenSK, she called the new MIT report "a whitewash" and wrote that MIT should have come out publicly against the case.

According to MIT's report, MIT employees first learned of someone using its network improperly starting in the fall of 2010 and did not learn it was Swartz until he was arrested the following January.

At the time Swartz was already known for technical work like developing a content-reading format and advocating to make more information publicly available.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz's office used a 29-year-old computer security law to charge Swartz with 13 felony counts that carried maximum prison time of 35 years, even though he had not profited from his actions.

MIT President Rafael Reif launched a review of the case shortly after Swartz's death. Speaking on a conference call with journalists on Tuesday Reif acknowledged the school could have acted differently.

On the conference call, review leader and MIT Computer Science Professor Hal Abelson said he hoped the school could use Swartz's case to teach students about the tensions posed by Internet technologies that can be used both for good or bad.

"Aaron Swartz did both," he said. In a later interview by phone Abelson said that in his own view, MIT should have taken a stronger role on issues surrounding the case such as the merits of the computer security law and what might have been more appropriate punishments for Swartz.

"At least my opinion is that MIT should have been more engaged in the wider picture around this," Abelson said.

(Reporting By Ross Kerber; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Andrew Hay)

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