Knowledge is Dangerous
‘The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz’ opens Friday at Laemmle
By Jana J. Monji 06/25/2014
After young and handsome Aaron Swartz committed suicide in 2013, his death made international headlines for good reason. He was not as famous as a Kardashian, or as scandal-plagued as Lindsay Lohan, yet every day that people use the Internet they are brushing against some of the genius that this computer programmer, writer, political organizer and Internet “hacktivist” brought to our modern world.
Brian Knappenberger’s documentary, “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” examines the life of this brilliant child who embraced cyber technology like few others and recognized issues regarding the political and social importance of Internet access well before the men in gray suits fully knew how to handle the evolving world of computers.
Born in Chicago in 1986, Swartz was the oldest of three boys. His father, Robert Swartz, who founded a software company, was well-versed in computer technology and introduced his eldest son to the Internet.
The younger Swartz was so bright that he taught himself how to read. He built an ATM machine for an elementary school project. At 13, he won the second prize at the ArsDigita competition for young people to create “useful, educational, and collaborative” noncommercial Web sites.
At 14, Swartz served on the Resource Description Framework (RDF) Score working group at the World Wide Web Consortium and helped develop the RSS Standard. RDF is a standard model for data interchange on the Web. RSS, or Rich Site Summary, is the Web format that publishes frequently updated information, such as blog entries and news headlines.
From there, Swartz became involved with Reddit and benefited when it was sold to Condé Nast. That agreement required Swartz to work a regular 9-to-5 job at Wired magazine, which did not suit him. “You wake up in the morning, take some crushing public transit system or dodge oncoming traffic to get to work, grab some food, then sit down at your desk” and the “gray office monotony sneaks through.” After leaving Wired, he began crusading for public domain works and free information.
In 2008, when the federal court system allowed free access to court records online, Swartz downloaded 20 million pages and made them available for free. His next target was JSTOR, or Journal Storage, a not-for-profit digital library founded in 1995 that helps libraries and publishers by freeing up space and saving cost through a shared digital library of more than 2,000 academic journals. The service provides free or low-cost access to more than 1,300 institutions in 69 countries.
In 2009, Swartz helped launch the Progressive Change Campaign Committee as a way to learn more about online activism. The following year, Swartz, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption, contacted Lawrence Lessig, the lab’s director, and became involved with the group Creative Commons.
From September 2010 to January 2011, Swartz downloaded what the film calls “an extraordinary volume of articles” by using a hidden laptop at MIT. Swartz’s apartment and office were raided. On Jan. 6, 2011, Swartz was arrested by MIT police on state breaking-and-entering charges, after systematically downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR. JSTOR and MIT eventually declined to press charges. However, Swartz was indicted by what many have called overzealous federal prosecutors who two years after the initial charges were dropped charged him with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. If convicted, Swartz faced a maximum cumulative penalty of $1 million in fines, 35 years in prison, asset forfeiture, restitution and supervised release. Instead of standing trial, the 26-year-old committed suicide by hanging himself on Jan. 11, 2013.
Like Swartz’s father, Knappenberger isn’t neutral, and neither is this documentary. You’ll see archival footage of Swartz and hear from his family, colleagues, mentors and two girlfriends. And you’ll hear about issues in this pro-free information and pro-net neutrality film that blames a merciless, technophobic government for Swartz’s death.
If you didn’t know who Aaron Swartz was or if you have questions about net neutrality, you need to see this movie, which should be easy enough.
“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” opens Friday at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7 and simultaneously will be available on video through iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, Amazon, Xbox, Google play and Sony Entertainment Network.