If RSS feeds, Creative Commons, Reddit, Tor, or Wikipedia are part of your everyday internet life, or if you cheered when SOPA was put to sleep, you can thank Aaron Swartz for helping make those possible. The deeply affecting new documentary The Internet’s Own Boy: the Story of Aaron Swartz retraces the path of one young man whose lifelong passion for freedom of Information — not pirating HBO shows or sharing porn, but for useful, scholarly, scientific, potentially world-changing, capital-I Information — took him through countless revolutionary contributions, creations, and crusades until his sudden, unforeseen, tragic end.
Short version for the unfamiliar: As the narrator and interview archives share with us, Aaron Swartz was a precocious computer geek, a self-driven learner with no patience for the slow-track American classroom, a gifted coder, a vigorous problem-solver, a staunch enemy of formal wear, and a serious activist who in 2011 made the mistake of trying to free the wrong oppressed information.
Swartz was incredulous that MIT, bastion of scientific research, kept all its students’ works and findings relatively unsearchable and locked up behind a paywall with a third-party vendor called JSTOR. Rather than allow scientists, researchers, and other potential pioneers access each other’s results freely and openly, theoretically making it that much easier to accelerate the discovery process for so many causes and cures, MIT maintained full control of all works performed in their name and refused to divulge without cash on the barrelhead. More as an altruistic statement of liberation than as a profiteering gambit, Swartz was caught using MIT’s connections to download as much of JSTOR’s full contents as possible, a bit like an animal rights activist seeing how many cages they can hurriedly unlock before lab security arrive with their nightsticks and pepper spray.
The film recounts all the in-between steps using childhood home videos, interviews with family and loved ones, clips of TV show talking-head appearances. All of this builds up to the nightmare that his life became when the full weight of the Department of Justice came bearing down on him, yearning to set an example to any other would-be “hackers” who step too far out of line. Even after JSTOR and MIT both withdrew all overt support from the case, the DOJ nevertheless kept up the pressure in all corners of his life — badgering those closest to him, draining his financial resources for the sake of a defense team, even piling additional charges onto the indictment after the fact. Swartz had plenty of supporters, but they weren’t enough.
On January 11, 2013, with no prior history of depression or illness, Aaron Swartz ended the government’s vendetta against him by taking his own life.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: This isn’t that kind of film, but the close friends of Aaron who were interviewed for this film include respected author/activist Cory Doctorow (Little Brother, Homeland), and there’s an appropriate clip from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Considering that Swartz was a notable participant in the development of how Creative Commons works — i.e., the idea of copyrights that grant selective permissions — IP rights were certainly never far from his mind. One of the most interesting questions that might have arisen if his case had reached the court docket: should scientific research be subject to the same sort of principles that prevent you from publishing your own Star Wars novels? Should major corporations and entities be allowed to hide nonfictional, independently reproducible, ultimately beneficial facts and data inside virtual ivory towers and charge admission fees?
On a different front: after the initial round of charges, the DOJ tripled the number of charges against him by invoking a 1980s law called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was invented long before ordinary consumers had internet access, was partly inspired by the movie WarGames, and has been updated only sporadically and only by aging politicians who consider computers as useful and trustworthy as voodoo. Unfortunately, instances in American history where antiquated laws are overhauled after someone’s being tried for breaking them are distressingly rare-to-nonexistent.
The most prominent moral of the story: maybe that law could use some rewriting. And maybe agents of the Obama administration, acting on the original laws as well as the additions wrought during the Bush Administration post-9/11, should’ve picked and chosen their battles with more of an eye toward genuinely severe crimes and less of an open heart toward protecting corporate finances.
Wishful idealism, sure, but U.S. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren and the other sponsors of Aaron’s Law hope to prevent exactly this sort of misdirected, overbearing sledgehammering for future defendants in the wake of his passing.
Nitpicking? If you’re not a fan of movies where the American government is portrayed as a silent, oppressive monolith, you’ll find little comfort here. Interview requests sent to the Department of Justice, JSTOR, and MIT were all denied or ignored. One lone voice attempts to speak for the opposition, a prosecutor not directly involved who speculates as to the reasoning behind the DOJ’s insistence on pressing charges long after the other parties opted out of pressing on: to make the point that there are ways to change existing laws if they no longer suit the times, but that breaking them is not one of the better ways. The soundbite of this sole dissenter seems so lonely, disconnected, and hesitant that I’m surprised it was included at all. This half-hearted attempt at an objective counterpoint is a little jarring in its ineffectiveness.
For those wondering about content, since it wasn’t submitted for an MPAA rating: roughly four spoken profanities and two more written on protest signs. Let’s say a hard PG-13, beyond AMC’s boundaries but nothing that any director with clout couldn’t have negotiated down from an R.
So did I like it or not? The case against Swartz strongly reminded of the Dead Kennedys’ infamous Frankenchrist trial, in which California officials intended to prosecute the band on obscenity charges for HR Giger’s controversial cover painting chiefly as (paraphrasing from memory here) “a cost-effective way to send a message” to other musicians who might dare to make records not aimed at children. Other, more prominent album covers or profane top-of-the-charts acts could have been targets if the government had put their mind to it, and if they didn’t mind litigating against large corporations. The DKs were a tiny hardcore band releasing through their own record label and probably unprepared to fend off a lawsuit by an opponent with infinite resources. From their standpoint, an easy knockdown.
Again, creative IPs weren’t Swartz’s immediate concern in the defining incident here, but the principle is the same. It’s government officials picking on a smaller target so that elderly voters will think they’re keeping America safe and pure by putting scary evil rapscallions behind bars. The movie contends Swartz wasn’t one of them, and even if he technically were according to the letter of the outdated law, the vehement legal response was overkill.
Swartz reminded me a little of my son — not the amazing computer prodigy part, but other little things revealed throughout his story: the drive to pursue education beyond schoolbooks, the frustration with a society too content to accept The Way Things Are as defined by paranoid senior citizens, and his complete lack of neckties and collars. It was hard not to get sentimental as Swartz’s brothers discussed childhood anecdotes, old professors who later became allies testified on his behalf, and closest acquaintances struggled with the still-raw emotional wounds in their closing words.
The Internet’s Own Boy is a loving elegy as delivered by the heartbroken in the face of cruel injustice, but it’s also a story that hasn’t yet ended. For the sake of an uplifting coda, the movie doesn’t mention that Aaron’s Law has been stalled in committee since June 2013. You can still lend your support through the activist site Demand Progress (yet another of Aaron’s creations), but whether or not additional signatures will move it forward remains to be seen.
The War on Information doesn’t have many optimistic fronts, but anyone desperate for a silver lining, or interesting in seeing implied backpedaling, should note the Wikipedia entry for JSTOR indicates that the company has implemented some changes in its procedures, allowing more free uploads than they used to and considering future broadening along those same lines, much of this postdating the Swartz case. Alas, there’s still a tinge of darkened cloud: quoth the entry yet as of tonight, “Every year, JSTOR turns away 150 million requests for information due to lack of subscription.”
Lonesome prosecutor guy was on target from a purely legalistic standpoint: Aaron’s acts against MIT and JSTOR didn’t change the law during his unfairly truncated lifetime. But will his passing be enough to spark that change for those he left behind?
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Internet’s Own Boy end credits, but the thank-you list is nearly as long as the rest of the credits combined, an honor roll of supporters trying to give back to Aaron, in return for what he gave to them and for what he tried to give to all of us.
* * * * *
As of this past weekend The Internet’s Own Boy was only showing in four theaters nationwide, but I was thrilled to find it available On Demand. You can rent it through most other major streaming outlets, links to which are posted on the film’s official site at takeback.com.