Aaron Swartz was a genius. A child prodigy involved in developing the RSS process as a 14 year-old. This was a boy who was going places. His suicide at the age of 26, in January 2013, remains a shock. Coverage of his death credited him as a “co-founder of Reddit”. This underplays his political attitudes and deeply personal ambitions to make a better world. What is difficult to comprehend is how Swartz clearly had so much more to accomplish. This young man looked to Tim Berners-Lee as inspiration, not Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. As a child, pre-dating Wikipedia, Swartz created a program that utilised contributions from multiple sources to provide information to share across the internet. It is difficult to imagine what would’ve happened if Berners-Lee had a patent or demanded royalties from the use of his world wide web, but he didn’t. It’s clear from Internet’s Own Boy that there are forces working behind the scenes that are keen to monetise every possible element of the internet. Swartz fought these forces.
Swartz’s early brushes with the law are crucial to his story. Law, Culture and Scientific studies are documents that many believe are freely available to the general public. With the internet, it is a shock to discover that in America, access to public records and law documents are purposefully difficult to gain access to. Furthermore, it’s a multi-million dollar industry that creams off the money of graduates and those in the business who require regular access to these documents. Take PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), an American website that houses all the public records digitally. Despite its ‘public’ nature, it costs (currently) 10c per page, with a maximum of $3 per document. As these are deemed public records, Swartz (amongst a group of other internet activists) began downloading as many of the records as he could, and giving actual free access to the documents via a “PACER recycling” website. PACER earned £150m in revenues in 2008 according to court reports. Even visiting the site in 2014 proves how purposefully difficult it is navigate. Suffice to say, law documents that are considered public record and therefore free to all, should be the type of thing the internet can ensure is freely available, but it’s not. This is only one example of the hypocrisy Swartz was prepared to fight. Consequently, and what led to his depression and suicide, he was hounded by the government in an era whereby computer hacking was considered the new threat. FBI drove outside his house, ex-girlfriends were aggressively interviewed and Swartz’s movements were restricted as he awaited trial. Unfortunately, he killed himself before the trial leaving an incomplete legacy – especially as his lawyer states how convinced he was of their win. The tactics used against Swartz was purposefully aggressive and threatening as he was to be “made an example of” in the face of cyber-threats to America.
As a documentary, director Brian Knappenberger is passionate about his subject. A clear narrative, Knappenberger uses Swartz’s death to bookend the story. His choice of interviewees is friends and family members who openly support the liberal bias that dominates the film. Crucial representation from the government, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and JSTOR is awkwardly missing, with voiceovers revealing their declination to comment. Sometimes, the absence of crucial figures is a reveal unto itself as “silence speaks louder than words”. In this case, it seems like a gaping hole in the story.
Inevitably perhaps, Aaron’s voice did not fall on deaf ears. Before his death he was part of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) movement, which won its cause in 2012. People talk of freedom and the ample opportunity for the internet to truly make a difference in the world, and surely it can. But these fights require people like Tim Berners-Lee, Julian Assange, Jimmy Wales and Aaron Swartz to lead the way. These are people, who desperately campaign for funding and support; who are maligned in the media and by governments but it is they who passionately defend their belief to change the world, rather than cash-in their chips for the big bucks. Compared to “the billionaire” Mark Zuckerberg, Aaron Swartz struggled to pay his legal fees and this pressure came to a head. Zuckerberg regularly repeats his mantra about “sharing” everything on the “free-of-charge” Facebook. Aaron Swartz was trying to truly “share” the scientific and cultural heritage of the United States, and ensure that “free” documents of law truly were for the public. The Internet’s Own Boy proves that there are fights still to be fought and a genius and important activist has been lost in the process. It may not be the slickest of documentaries, but it is a story that needs to be told. Aaron Swartz was so much more than a co-founder of Reddit, he was an activist that was making a difference for the sake of the world.
This post was originally written for Flickering Myth