Aaron Swartz, who deserves to be remembered for his numerous achievements, is destined to end up as the poster boy for why being ‘neutral’ more than often entails taking the objectively worse side
It is clear that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both an icon and role model to the hacker and larger science communities, never wanted to play a role in Aaron Swartz’s tragic story. Unfortunate circumstances made sure, however, that it played one anyway—as detailed by a much-awaited MIT internal report on the case.
A little history first. In 2011, Swartz, a brilliant but troubled computer hacker, tried to download millions of academic journal articles in an effort to release them online for free—doing so from a closet he had broken into on MIT’s campus.
While Swartz was never able to accomplish his goal, the MIT administration’s decision to call in campus police set off a chain of events: Federal officials got involved, Swartz was charged with felony hacker crimes under a law widely criticized for its overreaching nature; deeply depressed over the prospects of facing decades in prison, Swartz committed suicide in January earlier this year.
For want of a nail..
The MIT report, over 200 pages long, takes defense primarily behind the principles of neutrality—whereby a string of fateful decisions taken by the university in good faith still eventually led to a terrible outcome.
For a number of reasons, some historic and others political, MIT chose to adopt a neutral position on the Swartz case—the report proclaims profusely that at every stage of the prosecution, it neither advocated for Swartz or against him.
It is precisely here that the farce that is neutrality becomes apparent. It is not only insidiously present in the overall decisions taken by MIT—but in the very premise of neutrality itself. Aaron Swartz, who deserves to be remembered for his numerous achievements, is destined to end up as the poster boy for why being ‘neutral’ more than often entails taking the objectively worse side.
A careful reading of the report shows, with horrifying clarity, three fundamental instances where MIT could have chosen to change the course of the case, but instead decided not speak out.
The first was in the charges leveled against Swartz. Excerpts from the report clearly state that MIT was in a position to cast doubt on the prosecution’s charge by recognizing that under the institute’s open access policies, Swartz’s downloading was likely not “unauthorised”.
In fact, MIT Media Lab Director Jo Ito highlights at one point that the rules set by MIT played a key role in determining what constituted a felony in the Aaron Swartz case. In other similar cases in the past, when it came to MIT’s own students, the institute tweaked these authorization rules to make sure they were left off with minor misdemeanors.
The other two instances primarily deal with helping Aaron’s father with the case—with MIT’s primary defense being that as it did not consider Aaron to be a member of the broader MIT community, it would be best to stand by passively.
It is at this point that many critics of MIT are left conflicted. There might not have been any use dissuading the U.S Attorney’s Office in Boston, but it is very clear that no one was in a better position to try than MIT.
The justification veil
At what point does adopting a neutral stance no longer justify watching passively as federal prosecutors overreacted to what should have been treated as a minor case? The principles of neutrality or simply ‘being neutral’ have, over time, acquired an almost halo-like nature. MIT’s neutrality teaches us, in fact, that ultimately there is no such thing as neutrality.
For the concept of neutrality to be applied in its whole heart and spirit—it must work on the basic premise that both sides are equal. This is the problem with tolerance in general. When we tell our kids “no no… if two boys are fighting, you must not take a side”, it is utterly misleading. In today’s current concrete dynamic, a political power dynamic, all sides are simply not equal.
The moment MIT treated both factions (Swartz and the U.S Government) as equal – they automatically took the federal prosecutors side. It is no longer enough to say that “this whole affair is a catastrophe, it does not matter who is right or who is wrong, we will step aside and be neutral.”
At this point the neutrality defense serves as a convenient excuse for MIT’s inaction. The decision to opt for non-action, when one participant is much stronger in terms of financial and legal power, cannot be termed as neutral—it can only be interpreted as allowing the stronger party to win.
There is something profoundly false in this type of pacifist neutrality adopted by MIT. Neutrality as such, in a concrete situation such as this, always means taking sides. There is no way to escape this.
In addition to this, MIT deserves to be condemned for the basis by which it chose to adopt its neutral status. Even if Swartz was not a member of the MIT community, does that mean the institute should selectively apply a different set of values—acceding to felony charges for an act that, if committed by a student or faculty member, might have yielded a mild internal punishment?
To state that nobody has the responsibility for Aaron Swartz’s blood but himself is tantamount to excusing the gross abuses of those whose interactions with Aaron led to his suicide. We are, in essence, giving a pass to disgraceful prosecution tactics including intimidation and overreach. We are giving a pass to an institution that abandoned morality for neutrality.
More egregiously, we are encouraging a broad view that only the victim as it fault for his/her choice. To understand instances of people taking their own lives, we must first seek to understand the ‘why’. We must fully try to comprehend the circumstances surrounding Aaron’s plight before his death—and this includes holding those to account that contributed to it.