Have you ever read a blog? If so, you might be familiar with RSS, a technology used by nearly every blog on the planet to allow readers to view entries in the program of their choice. It’s amazing to think that the co-creator of this ubiquitous technology, Aaron Swartz—who was also instrumental in developing Reddit and Creative Commons—developed it at the age of 14.
So what’s this prodigy up to at the ripe old age of 26? What innovation does he have in store for us next? Tragically, the answer is: nothing. Swartz committed suicide last week, shortly before he was due to be tried in federal court on 13 felony charges, facing a million-dollar fine and a possible 50 years in prison. His crime? Going onto MIT’s campus to download millions of academic articles from a nonprofit company called JSTOR. JSTOR came to an accommodation with Swartz, who in fact did not need to “hack” anythingto download the articles, and ultimately declined to even press charges. But unfortunately for Swartz, MIT apparently could not countenance the use of its (deliberately open) network for such purposes, giving federal prosecutors the reason they needed to bring Swartz to trial.
Suicide is obviously not a normal response to being criminally prosecuted. Yet the dire straits that drove Swartz (who, like millions of Americans, had a history of depression) to suicide were deliberately created by federal prosecutors, abetted by decisions made by MIT. As author and friend Cory Doctorowwrote, “A couple of lawyers close to the case told me that they thought Aaron would go to jail,” while noted Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig pointed out that Swartz had nearly run out of money to pay for his legal defense. It’s not hard to see how much stress this must have put on a 26-year-old, child-prodigy computer whiz.
MIT apparently knows how bad this looks. President L. Rafael Reif issued a statement on Sunday expressing his sadness over Swartz’s death and announcing that he had commissioned an “analysis” describing the “options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.”
Technology expert Alex Stamos, who was scheduled to testify at Swartz’s trial, discussed one of those decisions in detail: MIT’s choice to have what he called an “extraordinarily open network.” Stamos notes, “In the spirit of the MIT ethos, the Institute runs this open, unmonitored and unrestricted network on purpose. Their head of network security admitted as much…” It’s hard to think of anything that has been more conducive to innovation in recent years than the open and decentralized nature of the Internet, so it’s no surprise that MIT’s policies would reflect that ethos. But in Swartz’s case, MIT, for whatever reason, decided not to take the side of openness, despite the fact that any actual financial harm from Swartz’s activities would have fallen on JSTOR far more than MIT.
MIT’s actions are no anomaly. In my experience defending student rights at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), I have too often seen universities take a hard line against technological activity that’s a little outside the box. Our campuses seem to do everything they can to discourage those who push the boundaries. When Berkeley student Derek Low converted his garden-variety dorm room into BRAD, the Berkeley Ridiculously Automated Dorm, Berkeley deemed it a fire hazard and sent him to a judicial hearing. (Low took the hint and moved out of the dorms a few weeks later.) And when University of Central Florida student Tim Arnold launched a website that would help students enroll in difficult-to-get classes by texting alerts when seats were available, he was put on three semesters’ probation and made to give up his leadership role in a student club.
Neither of these cases, of course, had outcomes remotely on a par with the tragedy of Aaron Swartz. Yet all the same they are illustrative of widespread campus authoritarianism contrary to the American spirit of experimentation and the free marketplace of ideas. Even the most authoritarian American institution, the military, knows that innovation requires breathing room for the creative among us. Tim Lee of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, writing about Swartz, points out that during the Manhattan Project, famed scientist Richard Feynman (who attended MIT, by the way) amused himself by breaking into military safes holding secret documents. The military knew better than to punish Feynman for his illegal yet ultimately harmless actions if it wanted results. Yet our universities today demand and get vast discretion on how to govern student life—and then proceed to hugely overreact to “offenses” that barely deserve the term.
Greg Lukianoff, author and president of FIRE, calls this effect “unlearning liberty.” Campuses are teaching students that freedom should not be the norm in America, and conditioning them to accept illiberal and arbitrarily enforced restrictions on their speech and actions. Worse, in Swartz’s case, the urge to censor and restrict so prevalent on college campuses intersected with the disturbing tendency of today’s prosecutors to overcharge defendants with ill-defined crimes, which FIRE Chairman Harvey Silverglate exposes in his aptly named book Three Felonies a Day.
Both of these trends are immensely dangerous. This time, their confluence cost the world Aaron Swartz. If unchecked, they guarantee us a future with fewer Feynmans and Swartzes—the very type of people who bring us the future—not through suicide but simply through discouragement. I pray that America doesn’t have to lose the contributions of any more geniuses before we begin to address the cultural and institutional problems that triggered Aaron Swartz’s tragic decision.