CAMBRIDGE, Mass. At a memorial for the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz Tuesday night at MIT, the university came under fire from friends, family and colleagues of Swartz.
Swartz, who committed suicide in January as he was awaiting trial on charges he downloaded millions of documents from the JSTOR archive of academic journals that he accessed through MIT’s server, was never enrolled at MIT, but memorial attendees strongly condemned how the school treated him.
When he opened the spoken tributes, Joi Ito, who runs the MIT Media Lab, tried to keep this memorial more positive than some of the other, often angry gatherings that have been held in the past two months.
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“I want to focus today on really the memory of Aaron, his accomplishments, sharing our condolences, in that we don’t take it into some of the areas that some of the other events have focused on,” Ito said.
At first, Ito got his wish. Friends and colleagues remembered Aaron Swartz as a computer programmer who cared more about making an impact than earning fame or money. And they remembered how he played with the rules, not by the rules, in his bid to use technology to make the world more like he wanted it to be.
It wasn’t long though before speakers began to single out the very university where they were gathered, blaming MIT for helping to push Swartz to kill himself.
“There’s no doubt that MIT made mistakes,” said Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. “There’s no doubt that the persecution that led to Aaron’s death has made the world a much, much worse place in violation of MIT’s mission.”
Stinebrickner-Kauffman had been Swartz’s partner. She condemned MIT for not telling U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz to drop the charges that included wiretapping and computer fraud.
After Swartz’s suicide, MIT President Rafael Reif asked for an internal inquiry. He appointed computer science professor Hal Abelson to lead it. Abelson was at the memorial, listening as Stinebrickner-Kauffman voiced her mistrust of his pending report.
“I fear that the investigation will instead be in the spirit of a bureaucracy, a PR exercise, a whitewash,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman said.
As she spoke, some of the nearly 200 people in the audience, which included many MIT students and employees, muttered quietly and shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
“Nothing can bring Aaron back,” she continued. “But MIT has a chance to make a major course correction here. The question is, will it?”
The audience sustained its applause longer for her comments than anyone else’s. Before introducing the next speaker, Ito echoed some of what she said.
“As a pretty new member of this institution, and one that is trying desperately to build loyalty to this institution, I also feel that this report will be a huge influence on how I feel about this institution,” Ito said.
But Ito said he does trust Abelson, the head of internal examination.
Still, the speaker criticism wasn’t over. Bob Swartz, Aaron’s father and a consultant with an office on campus, claimed that MIT has lost its way.
“What has happened to the MIT I love? How can this wonderful place act so cruelly? How could they crush my son?” Bob Swartz said.
Ethan Zuckerman brought the memorial to a close.
“Today, particularly listening to Bob and listening to Taren, I think there’s another challenge for all of us associated with this institution,” Zuckerman said.
Zuckerman runs the MIT Center for Civic Media, and he called on students, faculty and administrators alike to think harder about what they do every day at MIT, and why they do it.
“We are privileged to be part of an institution that attracts a lot of people like Aaron. That attracts people who want to make, who want to create, who want to think, who want to act, who want to push limits, who want to make the world better,” Zuckerman said. “And for those of us who are part of this institution, it’s our responsibility to figure out how we can make this a place where that can happen.”
When it was over, people walked out of the Media Lab, into the rain. But lingering for a while were two people at the center of all of this: Bob Swartz, Aaron’s father, and Hal Abelson, the man in charge of examining what MIT did right or wrong. They stood together and talked.