In January 2013, an incandescently brilliant American political activist and computer programmer named Aaron Swartz was hounded to suicide by the overzealous U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz. Anyone who argues differently has a desk drawer full of government paystubs.
Brian Knappenberger’s The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz connects the dots of Swartz’s past, assembling a vivid portrait of a sensitive genius with a strong moral sense. The film incorporates interviews with his friends, family, girlfriend, and a range of digital luminaries that includes activist lawyer Lawrence Lessig and author Cory Doctorow.
Have you used the social sharing service Reddit? Swartz was one of the site’s founders. If you read websites via RSS, you’re using technology he helped to invent; Doctorow describes being shocked, upon meeting Swartz in person for the first time, that one of the technology’s contributors was only 14 years old.
Swartz was shy, but passionate about technology, particularly what it can do for the political empowerment of regular people. Shorter than the lecterns he stood behind at public engagements, he’d vanish entirely once he opened his laptop. The endearingly anxious and precise Swartz would only eat foods that were white. “You’d think, this is a kid who’s really going to go somewhere,” Doctorow says, “if he doesn’t die of scurvy.”
Knappenberger documents Swartz’s growth from technologist to activist: He launched the Progressive Change Campaign in 2009 to develop new techniques for online activism. He founded the online group that famously derailed the supposedly unstoppable Stop Online Piracy Act, a major victory. During this productive period, Swartz was also grappling with prosecutors who had decided that one of his projects was somehow illegal.
Amid the financial crisis, this was the crime Obama’s Justice Department decided to pursue: Swartz, a research fellow at Harvard, had authorized access to the digital library JSTOR, and he used the MIT computer network to download an immense number of academic articles. Knappenberger interviews personal and professional confidantes including Swartz’s roommate, girlfriend, and colleagues; all strike similar tones of disbelief at the scope of Ortiz’s accusations, which escalated as the prosecutor threw out one plea bargain and piled on additional charges.
What Swartz intended to do with the articles remains unknown, but there are possibilities: He had once downloaded the entire Westlaw database and conducted an analysis that revealed a troubling cycle of funders of legal studies benefiting from the results of those studies. He had also evinced frustration over the years that publicly funded studies were inaccessible, locked away in subscription archives.
For the “crime” of downloading articles to which he had authorized access, Ortiz was motivated to make an example of Swartz. She overcharged him with two counts of wire fraud and multiple violations of an antiquated law called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, threatening him with $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison. Notably, the supposed victims, JSTOR and MIT, declined to press charges against him.
In Knappenberger’s film, the investigation and impending prosecution of Swartz come off like David O. Russell’s American Hustle, with heavy-handed, careerist prosecutors (who refuse comment) taking aim at a vulnerable target, an introvert who was easier to prosecute than an actual criminal. Terrified of the impending penalties, Swartz hanged himself.
At the funeral, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, the man who literally invented the World Wide Web and then gave it to the world for free, reads a poem he wrote for Swartz. That’s likely to be a more enduring testimony to Swartz’s character than the word of a bureaucrat who wielded the law like a cudgel and was surprised that it can actually kill.