Beginning in the fall of 2010, Aaron Swartz repeatedly logged on to MIT’s campus network and used an automated script to download nearly 5 million articles from JSTOR, one of the largest digital archives of scholarly journals in the world. When they discovered Swartz’s actions, both JSTOR and MIT faced a choice—should they help prosecute Swartz as a nefarious hacker, or should they forgive him for skirting the law while pursuing his activism?
Last summer, after he agreed to return the articles he’d downloaded, JSTOR dropped its civil case against Swartz. MIT took a different course. According to Swartz’s friends and supporters, the university played a key role in federal prosecutors’ efforts to prosecute Swartz of a litany of computer fraud charges. On Jan. 11, facing the near certainty of jail time, Swartz committed suicide. Shortly afterward, MIT’s president released a heartfelt public statement. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,” wrote L. Rafael Reif. He appointed Hal Abelson, a respected computer science professor, to lead an investigation into the university’s participation in the Swartz case.