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Aaron Swartz and MIT’s neutrality

In my reading, MIT does not come off as cleanly in Hal Abelson’s excellent report as Pres. Reif’s spin suggests.

When Pres. Reif writes that MIT’s actions were “reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith” I think we have to ask “Appropriate to what?” To MIT’s interests as a legal entity? Very likely. To MIT as a university? Not in my book. I won’t try to adjudicate the claims that MIT cooperated eagerly with the prosecutors but dragged its feet with the defense; I’m too emotionally involved to trust my reading of the evidence in the Abelson report. But, MIT’s timid “neutrality” wasted an opportunity to stand against the unreasonable and inappropriate tactics of the prosecutors, and to stand for the spirit of inquiry, openness, innovation, and risk-taking that has made MIT one of the world’s great universities.

I understand that MIT wasn’t going to say that it was fine with Aaron’s breaching its contract with JSTOR. But MIT could have stood against prosecutorial overreach, and for the values— if not the exact actions— Aaron embodied.

Larry Lessig has posted incisive comments about MIT’s neutrality.

4 Responses to “Aaron Swartz and MIT’s neutrality”

  1. I understand that this was written in haste, but I’m not sure I understand how the contract colors your view of the case. JSTOR did announce that they’d settled up with Aaron, and thought that further legal proceedings were, well … unfortunate. And JSTOR was the victim here, if there was any. If they were fine with the way matters stood, at that point, is it really too much to expect MIT to say that they were fine with things as well?

  2. It doesn’t color my view of the legal case. As far as I can tell (IANAL), Aaron broke no law. But even if JSTOR were encouraging the prosecution (which, as you say, they were not), I still wouldn’t expect MIT to issue a statement supporting the massive downloading of articles in violation of its contract with JSTOR. But MIT could have said that this doesn’t warrant federal prosecution, that they support the values Aaron lived for, etc.

    I think it may come down to what you mean by “fine with.” I haven’t heard JSTOR say that it’s “fine with” someone batch-downloading all of its articles in the sense that we should all feel free to do that. (In fact, I got a “you’ve downloaded too much” notice from JSTOR last week after I downloaded 5 articles!) So, if you mean “fine with” as “not worth prosecuting,” then I agree that MIT should have been fine with it in the same way.

  3. “Fine with” is an ambiguous phrase, but I was using it to refer specifically to JSTOR’s statement that once they’d settled up civil matters with Aaron, they didn’t feel any further legal action was called for. It’s at that point that I think MIT could, and should, have made a similar statement; it’s really disappointing that they didn’t.

  4. Me too. That’s what I meant by saying that it doesn’t color my view of the legal case.

    Thanks for helping me to clarify this. And I appreciate your non-aggressive approach to disagreement.

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