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Aaron Swartz’s Father On MIT's Handling Of Case: ‘Something I'll Never Recover From’

Aaron Swartz (Flickr/ragesoss)

Aaron Swartz (Flickr/ragesoss)

For the first time since the January suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, his father is planning to visit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for a memorial service next week.

Robert Swartz also happens to do consulting work for MIT, and was formerly a student at the school — which eventually became the center of the federal case against his son.

Aaron Swartz took his life before he was to stand trial on charges of using MIT’s computer network to steal millions of scholarly articles from a subscription-based website.

Aaron’s father says access to that site is allowed to anyone on the MIT network, so what his son did was legal. He blames federal prosecutors and MIT, and disputes the idea that longstanding depression was a factor in his son’s death.

Congress is now investigating and on Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a U.S. Senate committee that prosecutors offered Aaron Swartz a reasonable plea deal:

There was never an intention for him to go to jail for more than a three-, four-, five-month range. That was what the government said specifically to Mr. Swartz. Those offers were rejected.

In his first broadcast interview, WBUR’s Deborah Becker spoke with Robert Swartz and asked how he’s coping with his son’s suicide and all the public attention surrounding it.

Robert Swartz: It’s crushing. One is numb and crushed, and it never goes away.

Deborah Becker: Aaron has been described as many different things — as gifted and very sensitive, intensely private. Are those descriptions accurate?

In part. I mean, they’re certainly not inaccurate, but they certainly don’t reflect Aaron completely.

How do you describe him?

That’s a hard question. He was an extraordinarily sensitive, thoughtful and insightful person who really cared about trying to make the world a better place.

Some folks have said that Aaron suffered from depression. What do you know about Aaron’s state of mind after these charges came about?

One, Aaron was never diagnosed as being clinically depressed, never was on any medication. I think that what he went through would depress anybody and put them in a very unpleasant state of mind.

Aaron faced 13 felony counts and initially up to 35 years in prison for allegedly trying to steal millions of these articles from the site known as JSTOR. There was some negotiating that had gone on, and there had been a plea deal with prosecutors for a six-month prison sentence. And Aaron had turned that deal down shortly before he took his life. Did he feel that he had done something wrong and that the prosecutors were being overzealous? Or what did he think?

We were all just absolutely distraught and overwhelmed by what was going on, because it was so disproportionate for what the government was claiming had happened. Aaron settled with JSTOR, and JSTOR went to the prosecutor and the prosecutor’s boss and asked that they drop the case. And they refused. No one was harmed. The alleged victim said that they didn’t want the prosecution to continue. We couldn’t make any sense as to why the prosecutor was acting in this way.

What was Aaron exactly trying to do?

That is a question you’ll have to ask him, which of course we can’t.

Did he tell you that? Did he explain that at all — what he was trying to do with these articles? Was he really trying to disseminate information more freely on the Internet, or what was it exactly?

Again, I think that’s a question which I can’t answer.

Do you know if he knew that he was doing something that was against the law?

I don’t believe it was against the law. I can quote you from one of our motions to suppress, from Tim McGovern, MIT manager of network security and support, who says as follows about the MIT network: No authentication of visitors. Visitor network access is provided as an on-demand, self-service process for anyone who walks onto campus. So the government’s charges that his access to either JSTOR or MIT was unauthorized are just plain false.

The first question for MIT is, why did they bring in federal authorities? We, in innumerable ways, on a number of occasions, asked them to intervene on Aaron’s behalf. They were never willing to do that. So had they settled with Aaron in the same way that JSTOR had settled, I don’t believe we would be talking today.

Last fall, the head of information services and technology at MIT was quoted as saying MIT acted responsibly in this case because there were unique circumstances, and it had to act to protect its network and ensure the ability of members of the MIT community to access important scientific journals. Was that a defense that was expressed to you in your meetings with MIT?

No.

Do you think that there is any truth to the belief that this was almost an act of civil disobedience? And I know it’s hard to speculate on exactly what Aaron was doing. But did he think at all that if he was doing this to make a point, should he take the punishment to further accentuate that point?

Well, obviously he didn’t feel that it was appropriate to take the punishment for this. Otherwise he would have agreed to the kinds of things which the government asked. One of the things to point out is that it wasn’t only prison time, but it was also time in a halfway house, it was also home detention, it was also non-use of a computer for periods of time.

You’re working with a system that’s broken, a system in which something on the order of 97 percent of indictments end up in plea agreements because people don’t take things to trial because they can’t afford to, and the risks are too great. And so we were terrified. And he was terrified.

Did you have any idea that he would have taken it to this extreme?

On Friday night when we got the phone call from his partner Taren, I immediately understood that something was terribly wrong. And my first reaction was that Aaron had been hit by a car or had an accident. It did not enter my mind for a moment that he had committed suicide.

What do you think will be the main message from all of this? I know that Aaron’s primary goal, at least what I’ve read, was to improve access to information. And maybe that was what he was trying to do, maybe not. But could it also be that what he’s done here is really shown what you call a broken system?

I think, you know, Aaron was interested in a large number of things. Open access is one of them. The corruption in government is another. Look, Aaron is dead, and nothing will bring him back. But maybe in all the concern for his death, some good can come out of it.

Hopefully we can make some changes to the way that academic journals are made available, so that they’re made available for free. Hopefully we can shed some light on the criminal justice system. And hopefully we can see some real change at MIT, in the way that MIT has lost its way, gets back to what the university is about, which is improving the world and giving people space to think differently, rather than trying to destroy people who color outside the lines.

Is it hard for you to still work there?

It’s a complicated question. MIT is a wonderful place and a place that I love immensely. And what they’ve done to my son is something I’ll never recover from.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz released a statement after Swartz’s death saying her office handled the case appropriately. MIT’s president appointed a professor to review MIT’s role in the Swartz case. MIT leaders are not commenting on Robert Swartz’s claims, pending the outcome of their investigation.

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