By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Sununu blasts MIT and Carmen Ortiz in Swartz case

It’s interesting that even a conservative like John E. Sununu is disgusted with the actions of MIT and U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz regarding their investigation of the late Internet democracy activist Aaron Swartz.

Sununu, an MIT graduate with some serious basketball moves, writes in The Boston Globe that Swartz was charged criminally for behavior that in an earlier time might have been considered no more serious than any one of a number of pranks for which the university is known. The whole thing, he says, should have been handled in house:

Whereas the institute once would have taken pains to find an appropriate and internal resolution to violations of regulations — and even laws — within its campus, it chose to defer to others. That reaction isn’t unique to MIT, but rather a reflection of gradual changes in accepted cultural and government behavior over the past 20 years. Today, regulators and prosecutors regularly use their power to impose agreements, plea bargains, and consent decrees with little judicial review. They threaten the maximum penalty allowable — regardless of whether a rational mind would consider it fitting for the infraction — in order to gain an outcome that enhances their stature or pleases their political base.

Meanwhile, Noam Cohen of The New York Times takes a detailed look at how MIT caught Swartz, who downloaded nearly 5 million academic articles from the JSTOR subscription service without authorization.

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  1. Amy Tedford

    Geez, I can’t believe I actually agree with John Sunnunu (sp?) on this one. Although I do wonder about copyrights for the people who wrote all those studies and docs, I think the poor kid was tortured to death. Amy Tedford

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Amy: The articles were published in academic journals, so virtually no one got paid.

  2. Michael Pahre

    In can understand how people can hold different views about just how serious Swartz’s actions were.

    But I am amazed that Sununu — and it seems you to, Dan, by your highlighting this particular point of Sununu’s — considers it analogous to a “prank.”

    If a guy were to break into your house (“broke into a restricted area”) in order to download and steal private and/or copyrighted material off your computer’s hard disk (“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars”), I surmise that you would not label it a “prank.”

    I don’t think anybody was ROTFL when they read what Swartz had done. But people laugh loudly when an MIT police cruiser is found on the top of a building.

    Whether or not what Swartz did was a serious offense, it can hardly be called a prank.

  3. Andy Koppel

    I agree with Michael. It seems to me that many people have allowed ideology to trump what they would assert if a similar action affected their lives. Nothing new there.

    The article in The New York Times does not minimize what took place. This was much more than a prank and, while Ortiz was certainly overreaching, such content is explicitly not free — and no serious person believes it to be so when considering their own.

    As for Sununu, this gives him the opportunity to appear open-minded while blasting two of the Right’s many pet peeves: government intrusion and elite academic institutions.

    Swartz shouldn’t have done it, and the government and MIT shouldn’t have pursued him relentlessly. But there is a middle ground, and I am unconvinced by the people who view this in black and white.

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