Aaron Swartz was a genius involved in the development of the basic Internet protocols, including RSS, the co-founder of Reddit and a millionaire at 19. He is best known, though, for his work on information freedom for all and the persecution he suffered under by an FBI-led legal battle against “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.”
The question left hanging at the end of “The Internet’s Own Boy” is: what would the world be like if Aaron Swartz had lived and brought about his goal of free public access to public domain information? He was only 26 when he succumbed to the pressures imposed by the FBI as he practiced his brand of Hacktivism, making information available to all, to his own detriment and death.
Documentarian Brian Knappenberger assembles videos of Aaron from a young child to his legal fight that would end in suicide. Interviews with friends and family help to give a view into what he was like growing up a genius. Focus, though, is on Aaron’s campaign to free information for the masses and what it ultimately cost him.
The list of Aaron Swartz’s accomplishments is impressive in scope and number. He created some of the Internet applications and protocols that we all use every day. But, his fight for information freedom is even more important to us in our evolution as a species. They say the good die young. Aaron Swartz died young. I give it a B.
When he was three years old, Susan Swartz was astonished when her son informed her that it was free family entertainment day at Highland Park, having read the information from a flyer in her kitchen. Her brilliant son went on to create The Info, a forerunner of Wikipedia, at the age of 12. At 14, he helped develop RSS. But after he balked at corporate life when Reddit, which he cofounded, was sold, the young man realized his calling as an information activist. Writer/director Brian Knappenberger ("We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists") looks at his life and the terrible irony and senseless tragedy of his death in "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz."
News of Aaron Swartz's suicide devastated many. The young man had been a driving force behind getting the over-reaching Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) stopped in its tracks. In Boston, the news was particularly noteworthy as it was an indictment on 13 felony violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) brought by the office of United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz which drove him to it. Swartz had connected a laptop to an MIT server to run a scripted download of academic documents from JSTOR, a company which profited from academic research, with no intention of commercial competition. MIT, a breeding ground for hackers, took a public neutral stance, in itself disturbing, but its private actions were even more so, especially considering JSTOR itself dropped its own charges.
Knappenberger paints a picture of a brilliant young man using home movies, interviews with parents, friends and colleagues and Swartz's own words. But Swartz was no Gates or Zuckerberg, dedicating himself to the public good over personal fortune, the World Wide Web's Tim Berners-Lee being one of his heroes. He uses the government's Pacer (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) site as a touchstone for just what Swartz opposed. Public documents are available, but require a credit card payment to access, and while it is legal for the government to cover costs, Pacer appears to be making huge profits. A Pacer recycling site was set up for those who'd already paid for documents to upload and Swartz engineered a method for downloading 20 million pages via free library access (Pacer is only freely available in a limited number of public libraries). So why did the F.B.I. show up in his driveway?
The JSTOR issue is a little different, but as Swartz pointed out, many of the world's nations, like India, can't even pay to access these repositories of scientific knowledge. There could probably be a documentary made on companies like JSTOR, part of the corporatization of higher education, alone. But when Knappenberger has really set out to do is show how ridiculous the case against Swartz really was. So ridiculous, in fact, that 'Aaron's Law' has been introduced to reform the CFAA which was used to indict him.
Knappenberger hints that Swartz wasn't always the easiest person to get along with, but doesn't produce any testimony as to what made him difficult (his Reddit cofounders refused to cooperate). He also spends a lot of time with Aaron's former live-in girlfriend, a relationship demolished when she agreed to be questioned about his case even though she didn't know why she needed the promised immunity from prosecution. She comes across as a cowed victim heavy with guilt and both of these elements of Knappenberger's film feel under served.
But the filmmaker's main points come through loud and clear, never more so than in a coda about a fourteen year-old boy who cited Swartz when he came up with an idea for early pancreatic cancer detection by freely accessing the same documents Swartz wished to make public. The documentary's release as the net neutrality debate rages will only underscore what we have lost.
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