Who was Aaron Swartz? A curious mind, for whom computers were magic and there was always something to solve. The teenager who helped create the code for Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons , RSS software and Reddit. A digital activist involved in mobilising the US tech community to oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) a controversial copyright bill, finally derailed by an Internet blackout on January 18, 2012.
In 2014, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, funded through crowd-sourcing platform Kickstarter, received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival.
It marked the first anniversary of his death a year earlier, two years after he had fallen foul of the US authorities for downloading several million articles from the academic database JSTOR. He had been indicted on multiple felony counts; there was talk of up to 35 years in prison. Aaron Swartz was just 26 years old when he took his own life and until I watched this documentary on YouTube, unknown to me.
I am not alone. Writing in The New Yorker, two months after he died, Larissa MacFarquhar commenting on the response on social media said that: “Very few of the people who posted had known him personally, or even heard his name before his death.”
The Internet’s Own Boy gives us a glimpse of the human story behind the headlines, from the point of view of family, close friends and colleagues and such Internet pioneers as Tim Berners-Lee and Lawrence Lessig. It traces the trajectory of the sweet, clever little boy of early home movie footage to brilliant teenager, engaging with some of the smartest thinkers of the Internet and political activist who believed passionately in Internet freedoms and Open Access, in a time of social media-fuelled political upheaval. In the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto (2008), he wrote:
“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.”
Though we are not given answers about why Aaron Swartz chose to download the JSTOR documents and what he intended to do with them, it is clear that he did not anticipate the consequences of his actions. He had previously downloaded files from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database and come to the attention of the FBI but was not charged. And anyway, this kind of cyber activity was apparently understood as being part of the culture of MIT. But he was arrested and though he returned the files to JSTOR, who dropped any charges, he faced federal prosecution. This has been widely criticised as ‘overzealous’ and the reaction of an administration keen to exert more control in Cyberspace and wanting ‘to make an example’ of someone. Nobody from the other side of the argument was prepared to comment for the film.
The debate about copyright continues. Earlier this year Tim-Berners-Lee and other Internet experts signed a letter in opposition to EU Copyright Directive Article 13 of which they believe, could transform the Internet from an open platform into a surveillance tool. An amended version goes before the European Parliament in January 2019.
Aaron Swartz thought about how in the Internet age where everyone can have a channel, who has control over what gets heard? Perhaps the most powerful message from The Internet’s Own Boy is that we all need to think a lot more about that too.