MIT to probe its role in Aaron Swartz's suicide

Protests continue online with the MIT website inaccessible

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is conducting an inquiry into its role in the legal struggles that are believed to have lead to the suicide Friday of Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

The institute's website was also inaccessible for a while late Sunday, apparently after protesters launched an attack on the site.

The Internet pioneer and computer programming prodigy faced a variety of charges in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, including computer intrusion, wire fraud and unlawful collection of information stemming from allegations that he used the MIT network to steal millions of scholarly articles and documents from the JSTOR database of scholarly articles between September 2010 and January 2011.

He allegedly intended to distribute the documents and articles through file-sharing sites. If convicted, he could have been hit with a 35-year jail sentence and a US$1 million fine.

"Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011," MIT president L. Rafael Reif said in a statement on Sunday.

Reif said he had asked Hal Abelson, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the institution, to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that it first noticed unusual activity on its network in fall 2010 up to the present.

"I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it," Reif said.

MIT did not immediately respond to a request for information on whether its website was under attack. Messages on Twitter by hacker group Anonymous and whistle-blower site WikiLeaks said the site had been brought down in protest against Swartz's death.

Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death, his family and partner said in a statement. The US Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims, the family said. Unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles, according to the statement.

Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims it might have had against him in June 2011, the not-for-profit service said in a statement on its website.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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