Chronicling the life and tragic death of computer wunderkind Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), “The Internet’s Own Boy” is a documentary that pulls the viewer into a life too brief and incredibly brilliant as we witness a young boy’s intellectual development as well as his emotionally opaque inner life. The testimony of those who deeply loved him and grieved over his untimely death at the age of 25 is sensitively and truthfully conveyed.
A master in software development (some would argue the computer programmer equivalent of the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking), Aaron was reading novels by kindergarten. When he was 13, Aaron had started the equivalent of Wikipedia, before Wikipedia existed, but it failed to attract attention. He went on to create watchdog.net, a precursor to change.org, but nothing came of either of those. Why did Wikipedia and change.org become Internet giants while the Web sites he developed at the age of 13 and 14 were failures? Probably because the gatekeepers in the fields of technology did not take seriously the insightful, prescient programming of a barely pubescent boy.
Later, Aaron drops out of high school and yet is accepted at Stanford. Then Aaron leaves the university’s computer science program after one year, because the classes were “pointless and boring”. Funded by Y Combinator, an “incubator” firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Aaron starts Infogami, eventually merging with another Y Combinator start-up, Reddit, which is sold to Condé Nast. Aaron becomes a millionaire at the age of 20.
“The Internet’s Own Boy” gains more momentum as a dramatic thriller, after the historical overview of why Aaron Swartz’s life matters. Beyond the contributions this young savant has made to the Internet as we know it, we witness the FBI’s two-year surveillance of every move he makes. Why the surveillance? After becoming a millionaire, Aaron Swartz turned to political activism, developing software for open access to public information, including medical and legal documents. After all, corporate websites saw these databases as a source of revenue. The public had to pay to gain access, charging for information sponsored by nonprofit institutions or undertaken with government funding. Neither the corporations nor academia were pleased with Aaron Swartz and open access.
Swartz was indicted on multiple felony counts for downloading several million articles from the academic medical database JSTOR. [For those of you who have googled a medical problem on the Internet, JSTOR is one of the primary databases for medical research. After one or two sentences describing research from a prestigious university, the user has to pay several hundred dollars to read the entire university report.) JSTOR filed a complaint with the US government, in conjunction with MIT (even though MIT’s computer system is open to anyone on campus).
Soon after his arrest, he returned the data he had taken, and JSTOR considered the matter settled. For reasons that are unclear, MIT continued to cooperate with the prosecution, despite many efforts, internal and external, to dissuade it.
Aaron Swartz was also concerned about the relation between political candidates’ wealth and their electoral success, and, while successful candidates’ financial disclosure records were available on the Internet, unsuccessful candidates’ records, while public and digitized, were not online. If you wanted to see them, you were required to make paper copies in a library, but Swartz wanted access to the digital files so he could analyze the data. With the help of fellow programmer Alec Resnick, they spent days in a library attempting to hack into the files. But the government had not forgotten about Aaron’s mission to make public records accessible. Resnick was held in jail overnight and then released.
Next Swartz went to a library in Chicago and downloaded twenty per cent of the pacer (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database for public documents. He then gave the data to the Stanford Law Review for publication. As the FBI investigation was in its infancy in 2008, Swartz and a few other hackers wrote the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.” Meanwhile , the FBI conducting surveillance on his parents’ house, near Chicago.
Shortly after Swartz was arrested, the prosecutors subpoenaed Quinn Norton, his ex-girlfriend. This is perhaps one of the most devastating scenes in which we see how the US prosecutorial team manipulated Norton, in order to compel her to cooperate with the investigation. His family was horrified. There was concern that he would commit suicide if he went to prison.
“The Internet’s Own Boy” has relevance that has never been stronger than it is today with the manipulation of Facebook by unseen agents . Swartz’s belief that the influence of money in American politics was so enormous a problem that he wanted to devote his considerable programming genius to expose the influence of wealth on the political process.
But it was Swartz’s groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing combined with his aggressive approach to information access that has us all deeply in his debt. This film is Aaron Swartz’s personal story about the price we all pay when we accept the business models undergirding their profits on one hand , and misunderstand or ignore the power of free access to public information. The privatization of public information is at stake.
“The Internet’s Own Boy”, a moving portrait of a computer genius whose mission was to provide a better world through digital access to information, reveals how powerful information is and how access to it is hoarded and brutally protected by corporations and government agencies. Timely exposé indeed!
Note: “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” (2014) is available on Netflix (DVD).