However, the report questioned whether the university's passive approach to the case had violated the school's hacker-friendly values. That echoes the public criticism leveled at MIT after the 26-year-old Highland Park native, who was facing federal prosecution, committed suicide in January.
"Looking back on the Aaron Swartz case, the world didn't see leadership," the report said. "As one person involved in the decisions put it: 'MIT didn't do anything wrong, but we didn't do ourselves proud.'"
In response, Swartz's supporters said Tuesday that the school was not without culpability.
Robert Swartz told the Chicago Tribune that MIT cooperated with prosecutors as they built their case against his son. "They should have asked the prosecutors to drop the case," he said. "They should have refused to cooperate with them."
In a statement released to the press, Swartz added that "it is clear that MIT in fact played a central role in Aaron’s suicide."
The most philosophical questions raised by the university's report — much like the event that provoked it — come down to challenging an entrenched status quo.
In January 2011, Swartz, an Internet savant known for backing open-Web causes, was arrested in Cambridge, Mass., after the university notified local police that someone had been mass-downloading academic articles from the nonprofit database JSTOR using the university's open-access network.
Swartz had intended to whisk the articles out from behind a pricey academic paywall and upload copies for free on the Web; instead, he faced weighty federal charges for breaking the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, with prosecutors threatening a lengthy prison term.
Swartz's defenders said the government refused to make a deal softening the charges to misdemeanors. Swartz, who was troubled by the prospect of going to prison, killed himself in New York before the case went to trial but left no note explaining why.
Part of that outcry was directed at MIT, where Swartz was not a student, but which nurtures a transient community of wunderkinds who wander the campus and participate in the school's informal intellectual life.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif commissioned staff member Hal Abelson to lead the inquiry shortly after Swartz's suicide.
The federal government has yet to release its records on the Swartz investigation following open-records requests by the Los Angeles Times and others, which were initially denied on the grounds that investigative work was ongoing — a claim made even after Swartz had died and federal prosecutors had formally dropped the charges.
Wired magazine's Kevin Poulsen filed suit against the U.S. Secret Service after the agency, which was responsible for holding the records, didn't respond to appeals for the records.
MIT, however, has moved to block the release of the investigation records, Poulsen reported, on the grounds that MIT officials named in the records might receive threats for their involvement with Swartz's case.
The MIT report released Tuesday cited similar concerns over threats and left many staff members unnamed.
The school had formally adopted a policy of "neutrality" toward federal prosecutors' handling of Swartz's case, the report said. MIT administrators decided not to push for charges against Swartz, but neither would they seek relief on his behalf, and they made no public statements supporting either side during Swartz's prosecution.
The neutrality contention may be the report's most provocative element. The report's authors questioned, albeit gently, whether the university should have supported Swartz's open-access cause and pushed for a change in a federal computer crimes law that many digital activists see as draconian.
Since Swartz's death, some members of Congress have sought to dial down the severity of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. That law bars "unauthorized access" of a computer system or network, and legal scholars and analysts have argued that in so doing, the law can turn basic infractions of a Web service's terms of service — such as on Facebook or iTunes — into a felony.
A prison term, in other words, could hinge on how the government interprets what "unauthorized access" is under a private entity's terms of service.
The MIT report noted that the question of authorization went unexamined in the early days of Swartz's prosecution, which mattered greatly since MIT's permissive open-access rules meant that Swartz's access may not have been unauthorized — and thus illegal — after all.
"As far as the review panel could determine, MIT was never asked by either the prosecution or the defense whether Aaron Swartz’s access to the MIT network was authorized or unauthorized — nor did MIT ask this of itself," the report stated.
Swartz ally Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard University law professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, criticized the oversight on his blog Tuesday.
"MIT knew something here that at a minimum could have cut short a prosecution, and which, it turns out, could also have saved someone’s life," Lessig wrote. "'Neutrality' does not justify failing to pick up the phone, and telling the prosecutor, 'hey, in fact, his access was authorized.'"
A statement from Swartz's family and his supporters Tuesday also criticized the university for handing over information to the government without warrants or subpoenas and not extending the same courtesy to Swartz's defense.
"MIT made numerous mistakes that warrant further examination and significant changes," Robert Swartz said in a statement. "MIT was not neutral in the legal case against Aaron. And whether MIT was neutral or not is a red herring: the university had a moral obligation to advocate on Aaron’s behalf."
MIT President Reif, responding to the report, promised further evaluation of the university's policies, adding that he'd ordered a provost to "design a process of community engagement that will allow students, alumni, faculty, staff and MIT Corporation members to explore these subjects together this fall and shape the best course for MIT.”
"Because these questions bear so directly on the expertise, interests and values of the people of MIT,” Reif said, “I believe we should explore them, respectfully debate our differences and translate our learning into constructive action."