Aaron Swartz’s Partner Slams MIT Report As a Whitewash
Statement by Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, on MIT’s report, released today, on the University’s actions in the Aaron Swartz case:
"MIT’s behavior throughout the case was reprehensible, and this report is quite frankly a whitewash.
Here are the facts: This report claims that MIT was “neutral” — but MIT’s lawyers gave prosecutors total access to witnesses and evidence, while refusing access to Aaron’s lawyers to the exact same witnesses and evidence. That’s not neutral. The fact is that all MIT had to do was say publicly, “We don’t want this prosecution to go forward” – and Steve Heymann and Carmen Ortiz would have had no case. We have an institution to contrast MIT with – JSTOR, who came out immediately and publicly against the prosecution. Aaron would be alive today if MIT had acted as JSTOR did. MIT had a moral imperative to do so.
And even now, MIT is still stonewalling. Wired reporter Kevin Poulsen FOIA’d the Secret Service’s files on Aaron’s case, and judge ordered them to be released. The only reason they haven’t been is because MIT has filed an objection. If MIT is at all serious about implementing any reforms to stop this kind of tragedy from happening again, it must stop objecting to the release of information about the case.”
Today is the 6 month anniversary of Aaron’s death. But instead of lingering on death, I want to take today to write about something being born. I want to write about something Aaron would have been so excited to see launch this week: Jhatkaa, a new democratic movement in India.
I first met my friend Deepa Gupta in 2009 at the UN climate negotiations in Bonn, when I was working for Avaaz.org on their climate campaigning in the lead-up to Copenhagen. I remember being immediately impressed with her. She was clearly one of the informal leaders of the 100-strong global youth posse there, and had already pulled off the impressive feat of founding the vibrant Indian Youth Climate Network, equivalent to the Energy Action Coalition here in the US.
We crossed paths multiple times that year, from Barcelona to Copenhagen, and after Copenhagen I made a conscious decision that Deepa was one of a handful of the thousands of campaigners who’d flocked from all over the world who I was going to try to stay in close touch with, even though we lived oceans apart. Despite more than a year without seeing each other in person, Deepa quickly became one of my closest friends. Thank god for Skype!
When my partner Aaron Swartz and I were living in New York last year, we were lucky enough that Deepa had occasion to visit several times for things like the Echoing Green fellowship interview process. She and Aaron hit it off immediately. I remember the first time the three of us had dinner together, in Koreatown, they quickly found a brotherly-sisterly comraderie — partially teasing each other, but most of all combining forces to make deep, hilarious fun of me. The two of them had in some ways diametrically opposite approaches to life and social change — Deepa flips a coin to make important life decisions, Aaron anything but — but they quickly built enormous respect for each other.
When Aaron died six months ago today, Deepa dropped everything — which is not a trivial decision to make when you’re in the process of launching a start-up — and flew back from India to be my shadow for two full weeks. She flew with me from memorial service to memorial service, she made sure that I ate and exercised and slept. I’m not sure how I would have made it through those weeks without her. I drew enormous strength from her. I still do.
I believe that Deepa is one of the most dedicated, talented, and humble social change agents I’ve ever met. I also believe that as quite possibly the Indian in the world who is most expert in online campaigning techniques, she happens to be positioned to do unimaginable good.
Frankly, India’s future is probably far more important to the future of humanity than America’s future. It’s the biggest experiment in democracy in the history of the world. It has 4 times our population and it’s growing far faster than we are in every sense. And most exciting, in the last few years, internet access has become sufficiently widespread that the country is more than ripe for a new model of organizing — one that empowers ordinary Indians, fights for equality and justice, and builds a strong democracy for the future. If you think that online campaigning has transformed American politics, imagine what it could do in a country like India — a country so large and diverse that the costs of organizing a resilient, long-lasting, national-scale grassroots progressive movement under old models would be prohibitively expensive, maybe impossible.
And I believe there’s no one better suited to catalyze that revolution than Deepa. If Jhatkaa (which, roughly translated, means “shake up”) succeeds it might, quite literally, have more potential to change the course of human history than the work of all my American activist friends combined. That’s why I’m so thrilled to see years of Deepa’s hard work come to fruition with Jhatkaa’s launch. Aaron would have been too.
Earlier this week, I pledged $200 to help launch the crowdfunding campaign. But in honor of the 6-month anniversary of Aaron’s death today, I’m upping it to $1000. That’s the largest financial contribution I’ve ever given to any organization, by an order of magnitude.
I invite you to join me in investing in Jhatkaa right now, at this critical moment in its potential. Early money is like yeast. And think of it this way: What kind of India do you want your children and grandchildren’s world to have?
I get asked a lot how I’m doing. The truth is, it’s up and down, so whatever I say here, please recognize that it could have changed by the time I see you. That having been said, the truth is also that these days I find having the “how are you doing?” conversation tiring and emotionally draining — and so I’m writing this in the hopes that I can have it less frequently and with less intensity.
That is very, very much not to say that I don’t appreciate your concern about me. I absolutely do. And I want to be crystal-clear that I’m not thinking of anyone in particular who’s checked in on me (including you, mom and dad!). It’s the natural thing to do, and for many people at many stages of grief would be the right thing to do. The fact that right now, for me, it is not is precisely why I am writing this blog post — to help you help me. This is a bit of a grand experiment: I have no idea whether it will work.
So, the explicit asks here are twofold:
Please share this blog post with people who want to know how I’m doing, so that they know without having to ask.
Don’t bring up Aaron’s death or my own emotional state in conversation unless/until I do. See the last section below for more detailed DO’s and DON’T’s.
So: Here’s how I’m doing.
On the plus side:
I had a really good few weeks a few weeks ago — I think I went more than 2 weeks straight without crying. It might be a coincidence, but it’s noteworthy that for those few weeks, I was in San Francisco — a place that I had never visited with Aaron and therefore holds almost no associations with him for me, even though he lived there and a lot of his good friends still do. I was also exercising a lot, not traveling, and in a really good daily routine.
I’ve now been back at work for more than two months, and that’s been great. I love my job and the SumOfUs.org team (after all, I did create them both myself!). Aaron was a huge part of my world while I was getting SumOfUs off the ground, and during the toughest parts was my biggest emotional support and my most treasured advisor. But even so, it well predates our relationship, and I’ve been almost surprised by how relatively easy it’s been to separate my work from the hole his death left in my life.
On the minus side:
The last few weeks have been rougher. I don’t really know why, but it might have to do with being back on the East Coast where memories of Aaron lurk around every corner. Or it could be that I’m traveling much more and not in a routine, so I’m not sleeping as much/as well and am therefore just more tired and emotionally vulnerable. Or who knows.
I still have occasional nightmares (I woke up to one on Saturday).
Reading about Aaron, doing interviews about him, and even engaging with advocacy efforts around Aaron’s death — such as the impressive work that great folks like Demand Progress have been doing on the CFAA, prosecutorial overreach, and MIT’s involvement in the case — all feel very hard these days. When I do them, I generally feel kind of crappy for the rest of the day. I’ve therefore been doing and will continue to do as little as possible of the sort, though it’s not entirely avoidable.
This isn’t really plus or minus, but it’s a relevant fact:
One of the more common manifestations of grief for me at this point seems to be a fairly sudden descent into uncontrollable sobbing, usually triggered by some kind of experience of Aaron-not-being-in-the-world. The weird thing about it is that I often don’t feel any emotional mediation between the trigger and the crying. There’s an intellectual “Aaron’s not here” and then there’s sobbing, and only after I’ve been crying for a while do I actually feel sad or angry or something.
What this means for you
The tricky thing about all this from the perspective of my friends is that grief — whether the aforementioned very visible sudden sobbing, or just me feeling sad inside — seems often to be triggered by extremely well-intentioned comments/questions. A mention of Aaron’s death being in the news again. A query about how I’m doing. An expression of gratitude for the speeches I gave at Aaron’s memorial services. Etc. That’s because unlike in the initial aftermath of Aaron’s death, I’m not always thinking about Aaron’s death — I am often actually in the flow of regular life and work and play. And if that’s where I am, anything that makes me really focus on his death or its aftermath jar me out of the flow into a much less fun state.
Again, I want to be totally clear: I’m not in the slightest bit upset with anyone who’s done this. I really, really, appreciate all the concern and support, and all of it has been with the absolute best of intentions. And there’s no way to make this perfect — I’m still going to get sad sometimes, and that’s ok.
I also want to be clear that I’m putting time and emotional energy into dealing with all of this. I’ll be seeing a therapist in Boston, where I just moved for the summer. And I have no problem at all processing how I’m feeling with friends when that’s what I need to do (huge thanks to the many wonderfully supportive friends and family who are there when I need you, at all hours of the day and night — again, including you, mom and dad!). But I shouldn’t, and can’t, be in processing mode all the time. If you think about it, most people aren’t constantly processing 5 months after a loved one’s death. But I think partly because I travel so much, and partly because of the sheer number of people who were touched by Aaron’s death, it’s common for me to see multiple people every day who haven’t gotten to spend much time with me since he died, or haven’t seen me in a month, or for that matter have never met me before. That seems to result in a set of difficult conversations that tend to happen over and over. And those are the conversations I’d like to have fewer of.
Finally, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mention Aaron to me at all. ”Regular” stories about him — like "Oh, remember the time when Aaron…" or "Aaron once told me…" — are great. They’re the kind of conversation you might have about a treasured friend who moved to France and fell out of touch. I tell them a lot myself and they don’t psychologically jar me in the same way.
This is all particularly relevant right now this week because I’ll be speaking at Personal Democracy Forum in New York (I’m giving the opening talk, entitled “You Know Nothing, Campaigners”, at 9am Thursday). The conference is loosely Aaron-themed, and I’ll be the opening speaker and then will also be on a panel about him later in the day on Thursday. I expect many people there will have some connection to Aaron (and I hope many people will like my speech!), and many of them will be uncertain about whether and how to approach me. So here’s what I’m going to propose as an experiment starting this week:
Have fun with me. Karaoke, puns, laser tag, pizza, hikes, complaining about your dating life… All are great. (Did I mention karaoke?)
Engage with me about ideas (e.g., this week, the ideas in my PDF speech!).
Talk to me about SumOfUs.org and my work.
Mention or tell stories about Aaron, especially when it’s relevant in the conversation — like if he once told you something that contradicts something I said he believed (he was a man of contradictions, so this happens!), or if he refused to eat at the restaurant we just walked past because he didn’t like the menu font.
Sit and talk/listen to me and give me a hug if I am already feeling blue.
DON’T (at least, out of the blue):
Tell me you don’t know how I’ve done it/you’ve been impressed with how I’ve handled his death (this forces me to think about how hard it’s been).
Express condolences for everything I’ve been through (this reminds me of everything I’ve been through).
Ask me how I’m really doing. No need to avoid the normal conversational “hey, how’s it going?” — that’s fine. I’m talking about the “but really, how are you?” kinds of conversations — they make me start a kind of reflexive but deep emotional survey of myself, which is draining and not fun.
Ask me to approve or engage with some way in which you want to honor Aaron (e.g., naming a new open access initiative after him). In general, whatever you’re doing is probably great — I’m of the Thousand Flowers Blooming school of thought and don’t feel a need to control everything that happens in his memory. If you really feel the need to run it past someone, I suggest contacting Aaron’s friend and executor Alec Resnick (@aresnick on Twitter).
And again, please share this blog post widely. The experiment will only work if lots of people read this!
The new draft bill to amend the CFAA that’s being floated by certain Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee is disgraceful. It’s an affront to Aaron’s memory and the countless concerned Internet users who’ve cried out since his passing about the unjust, ambiguous, and outdated law that was used to persecute Aaron. (Note: Some other Republicans on that committee seem likely to oppose this language, so we should be very careful not to paint everyone with the same brush.)
While we’ve been pushing to reform the CFAA to reduce the potential it has to harm activists and innovators like Aaron, this proposal would instead stiffen certain CFAA penalties. It would make it even easier for many people to be charged under the CFAA. Even under the current CFAA, it’s possible for law enforcement to charge people for violating a website’s terms of service agreement or “exceeding authorized access” to a computer network. It’s entirely reasonable to think that some of the most prominent mainstream tech figures our our era — Steve Jobs (phone phreaking), Mark Zuckerberg (misusing Harvard’s network) — exposed themselves to potential criminal prosecution under the CFAA.
As conservative law professor and former prosecutor Orin Kerr has noted of the proposal:
This language is really, really broad. If I read it correctly, the language would make it a felony to lie about your age on an online dating profile if you intended to contact someone online and ask them personal questions. It would make it a felony crime for anyone to violate the TOS on a government website. It would also make it a federal felony crime to violate TOS in the course of committing a very minor state misdemeanor. If there is a genuine argument for federal felony liability in these circumstances, I hope readers will enlighten me: I cannot understand what they are.
There are many other problems with this proposal — including making it easier to consider somebody a conspirator towards violation of the CFAA, and increasing penalties to up to 30 years for single, broadly-defined offenses.
Let’s beat this bill — it’s still just a proposal, but a serious one. If we make enough noise now we can scare anybody from actually signing onto it. Click here to email your lawmakers ASAP.
Aaron Swartz’s Lawyers File Motion to Lift Protective Order
As MIT Releases Redacted Documents, Activists Urge MIT to Support Lifting the the Protective Order
WASHINGTON, DC - Today, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced they will release information on the case against Aaron Swartz ,but will edit out names and other important information to the case, in a letter released by MIT president Rafael Reif.
“I welcome President Reif’s commitment to transparency. However, this announcement is misleading. MIT does not get to decide in what form the evidence is released publicly. The judge does. MIT has already given this evidence to the courts, at which point it gave up proprietary control over the evidence. President Reif’s decision simply foreshadows the inevitability that the judge will release at least this much of the evidence. It sets a low bar, but it does not decide the matter,” said Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Aaron’s partner. “The redacted documents MIT is releasing only tell one part of the story. Huge amounts of information would still be hidden beneath the protective order — information that MIT’s investigators themselves will not have access to unless the protective order is lifted. If MIT is really committed to transparency and having a full, complete investigation, they need to join the call with Aaron’s lawyers to lift the protective order.”
“This is not a change in MIT’s position. MIT could have no expectation of privacy or security since this evidence was given to the government with the understanding that it was evidence in a public trial,” said Robert Swartz, Aaron’s father. “They understood when they gave these documents to the government that they had no rights to privacy or security. MIT should release all internal communications related to this case whether or not they were provided to the government including all internal communications they had related to how they handled it and decided not to ask the government to drop the case.”
“I am also concerned that this announcement does not fully live up Reif’s stated commitment to transparency. After all, the people cited in this evidence could have been called as witnesses at a public criminal trial, and if MIT wished to protect these people’s privacy, MIT should not have become involved in the criminal trial to begin with. They made a calculated decision not to nip this case in the bud. They don’t get to avoid the consequences now, after Aaron’s death,” continued Stinebrickner-Kauffman. “Any redactions by MIT in the version of the documents it releases, or ordered by the judge in the version that the courts release, must be done in a way that leave the documents understandable. For instance, names must be replaced with consistent pseudonyms, not just blacked out in such a way that leaves the evidence illegible in practice. Moreover, MIT must leave intact the names of individuals at the senior management level, who are public figures and who were responsible for the decision to take the case to trial to begin with. Doing otherwise will make it impossible for the MIT community and Aaron’s friends and family to determine what actually happened.”
On Friday, March 15th, lawyers for Aaron Swartz filed a motion in Federal Court to modify the protective order surrounding the Swartz case and make the information from the hearing public. Swartz’s defense team reasons that in light of Aaron’s death, there is no longer a case to prosecute and no risk that disclosure would impede a fair trial. Swartz’s lawyers argue that the protective order hinders the public’s access to information without substantial justification.
“The public has a right to know what happened in this case,” added Stinebrickner-Kauffman. “The public has a right know how weak the evidence against Aaron was, and how frivolous his persecution was. I, personally, have a right to see this evidence, and I won’t feel closure until I do. The bulk of this evidence would have been made public in the event of a trial, which all parties were expecting. Anyone opposing the lifting of this protective order is engaged in a cover-up. There’s no other word for it.”
Swartz’s defense team has long opposed the existence of a protective order. In October 2011, Swartz’s defense team filed an original motion against the protective order.
After Aaron’s death, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent a letter to Swartz’s attorney’s requesting documents and information currently sealed under the protective order. In the letter, Congress acknowledges important information currently limited by the protective order is necessary to the public interest.
“Given the controversy surrounding this prosecution, and the ongoing level of public and Congressional interest in learning the truth, the only appropriate and responsible way to move forward is for there to be complete transparency about what occurred in this case,” said Elliot Peters, Swartz’s attorney. “We need sunlight. Anyone who opposes that – MIT or the government, obviously fears having the truth come out. On behalf of Aaron, we have no such fears.”
Swartz’s defense team has long been urging the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to cooperate with public interest in the case and not oppose the release of information under the protective order. Thus far, MIT has argued to keep the protective order in place.
While MIT claims it is currently investigating its role in Swartz’s death, without the protective order being lifted, the investigation will lack key testimony from Swartz’s lawyers. They have declined to be interviewed by the investigation until the protective order is lifted because many of the things they would contribute to the investigation are currently under the protective order, meaning they cannot discuss them with MIT’s investigatory committee. You can view email exchanges between MIT and Elliot Peters, Aaron Swartz’s attorney, below:
The prosecution didn’t just show poor judgment in its prosecution of Aaron. In addition, Steve Heymann actively broke the law and violated Aaron’s constitutional rights. Below, you can read the details, but the basic outline is that Heymann withheld evidence that would have been helpful to Aaron’s defense, and that he was legally and ethically bound to hand over from the very beginning of the case, until December 2012 — almost two years after Aaron was arrested.
A few additional notes to the release: Heymann appears to be lying to the DOJ, or else the DOJ is lying to Congress, about when Heymann turned over the exculpatory evidence in question. Ryan Grim reports that DOJ is insisting that Heymann turned over the exculpatory evidence during the status conference in December, rather than after. But I was there, and that is a lie.
Of course, Heymann had an obligation to turn over the evidence months if not years before that conference, but even in the very unlikely event of an honest mistake where he somehow “remembered” the evidence the very morning of the status conference, he would have been obliged to turn it over immediately instead of waiting til after the conference.
And finally, it seems entirely clear the Heymann would not have turned over this crucial piece of evidence if the judge had not ruled at the status conference that there would be an evidentiary hearing in January. That implies that there may well be more exculpatory evidence that Heymann has also illegally withheld, and that we don’t know about yet. That’s why Congress must subpeona all of Heymann’s files in this case, not just the evidence he submitted to the Court that we already know about.
Aaron Swartz’s Lawyers Accuse US Prosecutor Stephen Heymann of Misconduct and Overreach
WASHINGTON, DC - In a letter to an internal Justice Department ethics unit from January 2013 made public yesterday, Aaron Swartz’s lawyers argue that US Prosecutor Stephen Heymann, the attorney who handled the case on a day-to-day basis, engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by withholding key evidence from Swartz’s defense team and overreaching in his attempt to coerce Aaron into waiving his right to trial.
In the letter to the Justice Department, Swartz’s attorney, Elliot Peters, elaborates on a legal complaint made earlier in the month that indicates how Heymann had withheld exculpatory evidence at a December 2012 hearing that would have demonstrated whether the government had properly obtained a warrant to search Swartz’s computer and thumb drive. Email evidence later revealed that Heymann made false statements about his ability to provide and obtain those materials. In that December hearing, Swartz’s legal defense team was given that evidence only after the hearing had concluded.
View The Motion to Suppress Evidence Complaint, and email evidence involved here:
Reacting to the withheld evidence and conflicting story by the Prosecutor, Swartz’s attorneys emailed Heymann on December 18, 2012, asking for any additional withheld evidence and verifying that important evidence had not been provided appropriately to Swartz’s defense team until after the hearing had concluded.
In further email exchanges between Peters and Heymann from January 4th, 2013, Heymann argued that Peters had inferred a charge of prosecutorial misconduct. Swartz’s defense responded by saying that Heymann was “creating” that accusation so that he could “take offense” to it.
Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz’s partner, responded to the revelations: “We now know that Steve Heymann would have gone to any lengths to put Aaron in prison — even violating his own legal, ethical, and professional obligations. Heymann turned over this one piece of exculpatory evidence in December as soon as he knew that we would have found it eventually anyway. What we don’t know is what exculpatory evidence he’s still hiding. Congress has already asked for the evidence that is under protective order. Congress must also subpeona Heymann’s entire case file and all records he kept related to the case, not just those he gave to the defense and put under protective order, so that we can find out what else he was illegally hiding from Aaron’s lawyers.”
I just saw the news about Chris’s promotion to MSNBC’s 8pm weekday slot, and I’m experiencing what I’m calling a “grief spike.”
The first time Aaron and I lived together was in November and December of 2011 — we sublet a studio together on the Upper West Side as a trial run to see whether I should move to NYC to be with him. It was early days for Up with Chris Hayes, and we would get up every weekend morning to watch it together.
Aaron was so proud to be friends with Chris. When Chris had a baby, Aaron boasted to me about it — though he never got to meet the baby. He would have been so joyful about this promotion. I’m sure we would have watched the new 8pm show together a few times, either from the office or on some odd occasion when we were able to get home by 8pm.
Below is the prepared version of the speech I gave at the MIT Media Lab last night, at the memorial service for Aaron. The video of the full event will be up later on the Media Lab’s website; for now we have videos of my speech and Aaron’s father’s speech.
It’s worth noting that the organizers of the event were clearly pressured to try to keep the event apolitical and noncontroversial — and especially to suppress any discussion of MIT’s role in Aaron’s case. To whomever was applying that pressure, you should know that no one at the Media Lab knew the contents of my speech in advance, and they cannot be blamed for them. No one could have stopped me from speaking. Second, I hope that my speech has persuaded you of the ethical problems with your decision to try to suppress free and open discussion of MIT’s mistakes.
Most important of all, Aaron’s life, legacy and ideals were all inherently political and controversial — as was his death. It’s not possible to honor him apolitically.
Remarks by Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, MIT Media Lab, March 12, 2013
Like most of you, I have a strong affinity for MIT – I lived here for two summers, as a student and then later as a counselor at the Research Science Institute. My first kiss was on MIT campus (though not with Aaron).
When I first started dating Aaron, for probably our third or fourth date, I came up here from DC for July 4th weekend. We walked down Mass Ave to the river to watch the fireworks. I had to go to the bathroom, and for some reason he waited for me out on the sidewalk as I ran into the cafeteria building instead of coming in with me. I didn’t think much of it at the time. There were other odd things he did – like insist that I not leave the door to his apartment unlocked if I had to run down the hall to the washing machines. But I didn’t understand how those things fit together until later.
One day in July, Aaron called me. I was at Frisbee practice in DC. He said, there’s this thing that might hit the news tomorrow about me. Do you want to hear it from me or do you want to read it in the news?” I said “Well, I guess I want to hear it from you.” He said, “I’m going to be indicted for downloading too many academic journal articles, and they want to make an example out of me.” And I said, “That doesn’t sound like a very big deal.” He paused for a second and thought about it and said, “Yeah, I guess it’s not like anybody has cancer.” In the end though, it kind of was like that. I called him back later that evening and said, I’m sorry, I feel like I might have underreacted. I’m sure this is really stressful, being arrested and so on. And he said, “No, no, that was actually the most helpful reaction anyone has had so far. Please stick with it.”
The case took its toll over the last two years of his life, and I don’t think any of us actually realized how much of a toll it had taken, until later, until after he died. He hid it from us well.
Yesterday was two months since Aaron died. It’s been a hard week already, and it’s only Tuesday. Yesterday, I spent a little bit of time going through Aaron’s stuff, which is now in storage here in Cambridge, and I came across a couple of to-do lists. He always wrote them on the back of envelopes. One was probably from October or November. In between items like “make a dentist appointment” and “talk to Brian on my team” there was an item that said “Taren test,” and I didn’t know what it was. And what was especially interesting about this item was that it was crossed off. So I’m not sure what that was about. But it did make me think of one of Aaron’s ideals.
As the Media Lab said to me last week, the reason we’re here is to honor Aaron’s ideals. And this story made me think of one of Aaron’s ideals – iterative learning and testing, and in particular learning from mistakes. He was always testing things, especially his own assumptions. He was a scientist in the true sense of that word.
One of Aaron’s blog posts last year was called “Cherish Mistakes.” Let me read to you from it.
This is a tale of two nonprofits.
At one, they hate making mistakes. How else could it be? “We’re not ever going to enjoy screwing up,” they told me. But this attitude has a lot of consequences. Everything they do has to go through several layers of approval to make sure it’s not a mistake. And when someone does screw up, they try to hide it.
It’s only natural — you know you’re going to get in trouble for screwing up, so you try to fix it before anyone notices. And if you can’t do, then your boss or your boss’s boss tries. And if no one in the organization can fix it, and it goes all the way to the executive director, then he tries to figure out a way to keep it from the press or spin it appropriately, so the world never finds out they made a mistake.
At the other nonprofit, they have a very different attitude. You notice it the first time you visit their website. Right in their navigation bar, at the top of every page, is a link labeled “Mistakes.” Click it and you’ll find a list of all the things they screwed up, starting with the most horribly embarrassing one (they once promoted their group under false names).
And it goes on to discuss mistakes big and small, core and peripheral. They previously used flaky phones that would cut out during a call, annoying people. They were insufficiently skeptical in some of the most important claims they made. At times, their admissions have the tone of a chastised teenager forced to write an apology, but together they provide a remarkable record of all the mistakes, both crucial and mundane, you might reasonably make when starting something new.
It’s not that this group likes making mistakes — you can feel the annoyance and embarrassment seeping through the page — but they don’t shirk from them either. They identify their mistake, admit them publicly, and devise steps to avoid them next time. They use it as an opportunity to get better.
Mistakes are our friend.They can be an exasperating friend sometimes, the kind whose antics embarrass and annoy, but their heart is in the right place: they want to help. It’s a bad idea to ignore our friends.
That’s a hard attitude to take toward mistakes — they’re so embarrassing, our natural instinct is to want to hide them and cover them up. But that’s the wrong way to think about them. They’re actually giving us a gift, because they’re pointing the way toward getting better.
One of the really interesting things about this mandate to cherish your mistakes is how closely it aligns with MIT’s mandate. What do I mean by that? I mean that MIT is about science and about furthering human knowledge.
And there’s a funny thing about science, which is that you’re supposed to admit when you’re wrong. I heard a story once about an academic who’d been trying to prove a theory for decades. He got up at a conference on a panel with another academic. The second academic laid out a clear case, with convincing new evidence, for why the first person was wrong.
As an institution, MIT’s mission statement reads, in part:
The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge…in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century. The Institute is committed to generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges….We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.
MIT’s core worldview is the worldview of science, and your mission is the dissemination of knowledge and the betterment of humankind. And that statement describes Aaron to a T. This alignment of missions is why MIT’s involvement in Aaron’s prosecution and death are so tragic – and so deeply ironic.
You are probably all familiar with the broad outlines of the prosecution against Aaron, but you may not be as familiar with MIT’s involvement. There were many decision points MIT faced. MIT called in the Secret Service for a matter that could have been handled internally. When JSTOR reached a settlement with Aaron and publicly called on the prosecution to drop the case, MIT refused to join JSTOR. For years, MIT cooperated with the prosecution, freely providing them with evidence, documents, and access to staff, while Aaron’s lawyers had to fight for over a year to get to interview the exact same staff the prosecution had already spoken with. At any point in the two years preceding Aaron’s death, MIT could have issued a public statement saying that it did not want the prosecution to proceed, and the case would have gone away. After repeated private entreaties that MIT do so, Aaron and I had given up hope that your General Counsel’s office would listen to reason of its own volition. So, over the last 6 weeks of Aaron’s life, he and I were beginning to work with students and alumni of MIT, friends and supporters of Aaron’s, who wanted to help. For the first time, we were willing to make the case public — for most of our relationship, Aaron had been actively avoiding press and public coverage. These supporters were going to launch a website called Save Aaron. They were going to poster the campus with a slogan I’m personally very proud of devising: “Nerd != Criminal.”
Aaron’s missions and MIT’s were aligned. You both believe in the dissemination of knowledge. You both believe in bettering the world. So where did MIT go wrong? Why were the General Counsel of MIT, Greg Morgan, and his staff so bent on helping Steve Heymann and Carmen Ortiz at the US Attorney’s Office try to make an example out of Aaron and lock him up?
I think the answer lies in one of Aaron’s favorite books, Moral Mazes, by sociologist Robert Jackall. Jackall explores how managers and other actors in bureaucracies make decisions about moral questions — which at their root, most questions and decisions are. Let me tell you about it in Aaron’s own words, from another blog post in 2006:
Moral Mazes (one of my very favorite books) tells the story of a company, chosen essentially at random, and through careful investigation from top to bottom explains precisely how it operates, with the end result of explaining how so many well-intentioned people can end up committing so much evil.
This week’s scene takes place inside a textile processing plant at Weft Corporation, where the company’s poor low-paid workers are suffering from byssinosis. Byssinosis, also called Brown Lung Disease, is when your lungs fill up with cotton dust. Eventually your throat closes up and you suffocate to death. The company insists the whole thing is a stunt made up by Ralph Nader and other liberal do-gooders. But one day they change their tune:
"Weft, as well as all the other large and medium-sized American textile companies, was actually addressing the cotton dust problem, but in a characteristically indirect way. As part of a larger modernization effort, the firm invested $20 million in a few plants where executives knew such an investment would make money. … The investment had the side benefit of reducing cotton dust levels … One manager who was in charge of the project … comments on whether dust control was a principal factor in the decision…:
It was on these bases that the decision was made.
Publicly, of course, Weft Corporation, as do many other firms, claims that the money was spent entirely to eliminate dust, evidence of its corporate good citizenship. Privately, executives admit that without the productive return, they would not have—indeed, given the constraints under which they operate—could not have spent the money. And they have not done so in several other plants and only with great reluctance, if at all, in sections of otherwise renovated plants where it is more difficult to … achieve simultaneous cost and dust reduction.”
(Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes, 158f)
Corporate managers simply aren’t allowed to be moral, or even reasonable. And those who try are simply weeded out.
This book, I believe, helped Aaron articulate another of his core ideals: That we each have the same moral obligations in our professional lives as we do in our personal lives. That institutions per se do not deserve our loyalty. They deserve it only so long as they facilitate good in the world, and they lose it when they facilitate bad.
Most people don’t operate that way. Jackall put it like this:
What is right in the corporation is not what’s right in a man’s home or church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above wants from you…. Managers do not generally discuss ethics, morality, or moral-rules-in-use in a direct way with each other, except perhaps in seminars organized by ethicists…. (p.6, Moral Mazes, Oxford University Press, 1989)
Bureaucracy erodes internal and even external standards of morality not only in matters of individual success and failure but in all the issues that managers face in their daily work. (p.194, Moral Mazes)
Another of Jackall’s core points is that managers aren’t allowed to admit mistakes in bureaucracies. Most bureaucracies operate like the first of the two non-profits that Aaron wrote about in his blog post I read earlier. But scientists are supposed to operate like the second of the two non-profits.
So my question for MIT is this: Which are you first and foremost? Are you scientists, or are you a bureaucracy?
I respect MIT’s mission and the people here a great deal. There is no doubt that MIT made mistakes. There is no doubt that the persecution that led to his death has made the world a much, much worse place.
Immediately after Aaron’s death, MIT’s President Reif announced an investigation into MIT’s involvement in the case, headed by esteemed professor Hal Abelson. I was hopeful. I was hopeful that this investigation might be in the spirit of genuine science, of acknowledging and learning from mistakes. We can never get Aaron back, but MIT can ensure that this kind of injustice and tragedy doesn’t happen again in its community.
But since then I have become less hopeful. I fear that the investigation will instead be in the spirit of a bureaucracy. I fear it will be the kind of “investigation” that Robert Jackall might have written about: A PR exercise, a whitewash. I fear this because of the fact that the General Counsel’s office is itself involved in running the investigation, of which it should be the primary subject. I fear this because it has been two months and my understanding is that neither Aaron’s lawyers nor Aaron’s father have been interviewed by the committee running the investigation, nor has there been any sign that the report will be released until after media interest has blown over.
Another of Aaron’s ideals was asking challenging questions. And that’s why I’m here to ask those questions today.
So here is my challenging question for those of you at this institution who care about its ideals and care about your own moral compasses. Is MIT a scientific enterprise, working to fulfill its mission of bettering the world? Or is MIT a bureaucracy, operating much like for-profit corporations, interested primarily in promoting and protecting itself as an organization?
Here is how you will be able to tell:
If MIT releases its report in a timely fashion. It’s already been two months – how much longer do we have to wait?
If the report represents MIT’s critics in this matter fully and fairly;
If the report acknowledges serious mistakes by MIT;
If the report holds specific people and organizational structures accountable for those mistakes;
If the report refers to the morality of the actions of people at MIT in the context of universal ethics, not in the context of organizational security;
If MIT implements clear, actionable changes that a reasonable person would believe would have prevented Aaron’s persecution and death, had they been implemented before his case.
And perhaps most of all, and I need to give a little bit of background for this one: Aaron’s lawyers are filing a motion this week to lift the protective order on the evidence against Aaron. So far, the press and people close to Aaron, including me, have not been able to see the evidence against him, because it is under protective order. Most of this evidence would have been introduced publicly at trial had there been a trial, which is what we were all expecting. It is critical for us to be able to understand what happened and the extent of the malfeasance by the prosecutors’ office for us to be able to see that evidence and for journalists to be able to see that evidence. If MIT opposes public access to the evidence against Aaron, then we can be quite sure that MIT’s investigation is not proceeding in good faith.
I had a nightmare a week after Aaron died. I dreamt that the two of us were living in a house, and we knew that there was somebody coming after us. It felt in the dream that if we could just secure the house, if we could just lock the doors, put furniture in front of them, board up the windows with 2 by 4s. We were running around, trying to secure the house. And I stopped for a moment, when it seemed like we had made a lot of progress, I stopped to make breakfast. I made Aaron’s favorite breakfast, scrambled eggs and Swiss cheese. And when I turned around, Aaron was suddenly dead.
In my dream I didn’t know who was coming after us. In real life, it was Steve Heymann, Carmen Ortiz, with the help of MIT General Counsel’s office. We all make mistakes, and nothing can bring Aaron back. But MIT has a chance to make a major course correction. Aaron would have respected an organization that could do so. The question is, will you?
Photos of Aaron and me from spring 2012. We were working on a Friday afternoon from a house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, before spending the rest of the weekend with a whole bunch of progressive activist friends. My favorite memory of the weekend is the two of us taking kayaks out into the marshes at dusk, watching birds, feeling the breeze, breathing the stillness.
Next Tuesday, March 12, at 4pm, the last of the memorial services for Aaron that I’m attending will take place in Boston at the MIT media lab (where Aaron’s father works). Speakers will include Larry Lessig of Harvard reading a statement on behalf of Tim Berners-Lee, Joi Ito of the MIT media lab, me, Aaron’s father, and several others. The speeches will be followed by a reception.
This event will be a smaller than the ones in NYC, SF, and DC, and more personalized to the MIT Media Lab community, but it is open to the public and Boston-area friends (of Aaron, Aaron’s family and me) are very welcome. Unlike the other events, this one will not be livestreamed, but videos of the speakers will be up on Youtube afterwards.
This is going to be an emotional event, because Cambridge was more of a home to Aaron over the last 7 or 8 years than any other city, and many of his closest friends live there. He left Cambridge to live with me in New York last year, in part because of the social impossibility for him of living in Central Square right on Massachusetts Ave while banned from both Harvard and MIT campus.* We were planning to move back to Cambridge after he was acquitted. This will be my first visit back since he died.
Updates: I updated the speaker list and edited the description of the event to reflect new information.
*I still don’t understand why or under what process Harvard banned Aaron from campus. What gives Harvard the moral right to punish someone for an alleged (and unproven) crime committed somewhere else in the world, not on Harvard campus, in a case that has no bearing on Harvard? What if the alleged crime, even if the courts eventually found the action to be against the law, constituted civil disobedience? (I note that Harvard hasn’t banned Bill McKibben.) What if said civil disobedience wasin the service of spreading academic knowledge — something Harvard should be thrilled to promote if it has any institutional values whatsoever? Or, for that matter, what if the alleged crime was actually part of a research project into, say, corporate sponsorship of academic research?
And most of all, whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?