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MIT president to launch probe into Aaron Swartz case

AarSwartz posing for January 2009 phoMiami Beach. AP Photo/The New York Times Michael Francis McElroy

Aaron Swartz, posing for a January 2009 photo in Miami Beach. AP Photo/The New York Times, Michael Francis McElroy

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Updated: March 19, 2013 12:00PM

Two days after tech whiz Aaron Swartz killed himself in the face of charges he stole journal articles from MIT, university President L. Rafael Reif said the university will start an internal investigation into its role in Swartz’s prosecution.

Swartz, 25, a Highland Park native, who co-founded popular social media site Reddit and at age 14 helped created RSS, hanged himself in his New York apartment. He faced 35 years in prison for stealing 4.8 million scholarly journal articles and documents from subscription-only archive JSTOR. The articles were stored on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer network.

JSTOR later dropped charges against Swartz and chose to open the archives to the public for free on a limited basis.

“I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many,” Reif said in the statement issued Sunday. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”

Critics, including Swartz’s family, blamed Massachusetts prosecutors and MIT for unjustly punishing Swartz.

On Saturday, the family issued a statement that included the criticism, stating, “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The U.S. 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. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

Reif said he has asked Hal Abelson, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, to “lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our 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,” Reif said.

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