Life isn’t fair. Jobs, Wozniak, Gates, Zuckerberg, and Swartz were, or are, all geniuses on the frontlines of the digital revolution, but only one of them met with the wrath of the American justice system.
Aaron Swartz didn’t aspire to be a zillionaire; he was a passionate advocate for keeping knowledge free and accessible on the Internet. In late 2010 he downloaded millions of pages of academic articles from a digital library, leading to escalating criminal charges that carried penalties of up to 35 years in prison. Swartz committed suicide in early 2013, apparently succumbing to the pressure of the impending court case. He was 26 years old.
Within weeks of his death, filmmaker Brian Knappenberger began conducting interviews for The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library. It’s a timely documentary that takes up Swartz’s torch to shine a light on issues of civil liberties and the World Wide Web.
By the time he died, Aaron Swartz had been working for more than 13 years on the frontiers of the Internet as a sought-after collaborator on sites that became part of our online browsing menu. But his passion went deep beneath web technology; Swartz grasped the potential for social and political change in maintaining open access online. He was also a sharp observer of the gathering threats to the freedom of the Internet from all directions. Most impressive was his ability to explain why these issues were relevant to the rest of us.
This adeptness made Swartz an effective activist, perhaps most notably in the successful opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which caught our attention when Wikipedia and thousands of other web pages went black to protest the bill. Without Swartz and his peers, our online experience would be much different.
Knappenberger is no slouch, himself, at commanding attention while parsing complex subjects. He’s helped by articulate interviewees, including Aaron’s family and romantic partners, as well as a host of intellectuals, legislators, and luminaries of the digital world.
Swartz is seen in clips from his public addresses and interviews.
One highlight is a Daily Show montage of U.S. legislators making complacent jokes about needing “geeks” and “nerds” to explain the SOPA bill, with Jon Stewart providing the punch line. A broader point is then made that will resonate with Canadians : the U.S. government shut down its office of science and technology years ago.
The Internet’s Own Boy isn’t a definitive portrait of Aaron Swartz ’ s complicated personality. But Knappenberger excels at putting Swartz’s plight in the context of the moment he was caught in, where the “war on terror” and tough-oncrime mindset dominated the public realm. He has the advantage of an audience that’s become more engaged in issues of online privacy and surveillance and censorship than when Swartz faced “the bad thing” (as he referred to his looming charges). If we’re not yet at a Swartzian level of understanding, we’re getting there.