Am I the last kid on the block to know who Aaron Swartz was?
Aaron Swartz’s story was outside my radar entirely. I know such names as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, of course, and could even name Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange, but the second and third tiers of computer nerds are largely unfamiliar to me. I can’t recall now why I ordered Brian Knappenberger’s documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, from Netflix, but I’m very glad I did.
Five stars. No hesitation. This is a seriously outdated review – the film came out in 2014 and has has broad distribution and has met with considerable acclaim. But the film has not lost an ounce of its considerable punch in the past three years. If anything, the story has even more relevance today, as our freedoms seem to be slipping away before our eyes. It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 97% and even the negative reviews, if you take a closer look, are essentially positive. It tells the story of a young man who just wanted to make a better world and got eaten alive by the government’s obsessiveness with secrecy, which began as an overreaction to 9/11.
Aaron was upset that private corporations had managed to assume ownershop of things in the public domain. It’s analogous to the situation with the airwaves. Originally they were considered public domain. Today we have to pay billions to organizations who have taken control of them and politicized them entirely. Aaron directed his attention to those agencies, like Elsevier, who have managed to take control of academic research. Science should be free, he insisted. Science, after all, is knowledge, and the control of knowledge by money-making organizations is wrong.
But try to get that message across in capitalist America. Aaron Swartz did. And it got him killed. He was under indictment for having stolen ordinary information – not trade secrets, not secret formulas, which corporations were treating as proprietary information, and made it public. Not because he wanted to make a profit from it. He simply wanted to make the statement that this information belonged to the world and not a private corporation. He was facing thirty-five years in prison. There’s little doubt he would not have survived that. He was not a saint; in fact, he could be quite self-centered. But he was, from all reports, an idealistic soul. An innocent. Cynics and bullies make their way to the top. Some even become president. But the tender souls who show up now and again on this planet can easily get crushed and thrown to the wolves. This is the story of one of them.
If you see parallels with Wikileaks, with Chelsea Manning, and with Edward Snowden and the work of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to back him up, that’s because the parallels are there. Except that the good that has come from Wikileaks, the exposure of government malfeasance, is offset to some degree by the risk to national security. At least an argument can be made that that’s the case. With Aaron Swartz, the only harm done is the potential diminishment of corporate profits.
You might also want to argue that what Aaron did was the equivalent of pirating the work of composers and musicians by making their work available to people without asking them to pay for it. Or publishing copyrighted material. Or forwarding news articles without paying the source.
Also arguments worth considering. But Aaron didn’t abuse the rights of creative people to make a living. He challenged the right of a corporation who wanted to appropriate information and then sit on it until you paid up. The film makes clear that from this nerd’s perspective, this was intended as a prank. To be sure, it had a political message, similar to the one made by folks protesting that the coastline should not be in the hands of private owners. The film’s internet notables make the case for an open internet. I simply can’t see any convincing argument for limiting the internet.
What is missing from the film is the prosecuters side of the story. But they were invited to present their side and chose not to. What can one say?
The specific charge was that he illegally downloaded five million scholarly texts from the JSTOR database. He did that. He was guilty of that. In the end, JSTOR decided not to prosecute. But the government went ahead anyway, in order to make an example of him and deter others from trying to inject themselves into the world of profit-making. None of the material was sensitive, it is worth repeating. And he earned not a penny for his efforts.
Anyone following the fate of Edward Snowden and the trial of Chelsea Manning, anyone interested in the increasingly harsh treatment of whistleblowers in this country, should see this film by all means. I’d take that even further and say anyone interested in getting us out of the dark hole we have fallen into should, as well. It’s a big story, and includes surprising details, such as how MIT’s refusal to step in on Aaron’s behalf illustrates the maxim that all it takes for evil to happen is for good men and women to do nothing. And a whole host of characters whose unabashed grief tells it all about the impact Aaron had on people and colleagues. These include Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World-Wide Web, and Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford professor known for his brilliance, for once clerking for Antonin Scalia, and for being an outspoken defender of net neutrality. Watching Lessig cry over the loss of this young life brings home the importance of making sure we get justice back into our justice system.
1 hour and 45 minutes.
photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Swartz