Aaron Swartz and MIT's Openness

A blog entry Swartz wrote in 2009, titled “Honest Theft,” neatly details his view of the school as a haven for rebelliousness. He described friends who he said secretly lived for free on campus, sleeping on couches in common rooms and stealing food from the cafeterias — and using the money they saved “to promote the public good.” – Marcella Bombardieri, “The Inside Story Of Mit And Aaron Swartz

The role of MIT’s openness in this case is one that interests me, though I’m uncertain what to conclude aside from sadness for Aaron and his loved ones and the likely battening down of things at MIT. When I was a student there I had friends that basically lived on campus. One alumni split his time between the 24-hour coffee house and the libraries, which were open to anyone. (When I was a fellow at Berkman in the 90s, I was shocked at how much more restrictive things were and could be at Harvard.) Some female friends went months without permanent housing using a similar strategy and also taking advantage of the Cheney Room at the Women’s Community Center.

In addition to MIT be an amazingly open place physically, the computer systems were similarly open. The lore went that since most student’s could probably break the security on any workstation, MIT preferred to design its infrastructure such that they assumed any system could be compromised but to also trust the community. Hence, one could get root on any workstation via the command tellme root. Hence, David Lamacchia’s troubles over file sharing had a similar dynamic back in 1994: he took advantage of this to install a file sharing app on a workstation that was only flagged because students noted that the workstation was slow and its disk was thrashing.

In hindsight, both David’s and Aaron’s actions were ill-considered and took advantage of MIT’s openness. However, in my youth I too did things that if done now could get one thrown in jail (e.g., “weev” and AT&T). Hence, I am saddened when people blame MIT for being open. That said, the idea of being open, which implies that sometimes folks will cross a line and need to be responded to appropriately, is not easily reconcilable with a justice system that seeks to make example of folks by bankrupting or throwing them in jail.

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