WINNER: TOP 25 LIBERTARIAN DOCUMENTARIES
Aaron Swartz — an internet wunderkind and “open access” advocate — is threatened with 35 years in federal prison for the crime of downloading a large number of copyrighted documents, and commits suicide. [ The Internet’s Own Boy credits: Dir: Brian Knappenberger/ 105 min/ Documentary, Biography/ Law & the individual]
“The Internet’s Own Boy is a must-see not just for libertarians but also for anyone in the technology field.”
Aaron Swartz — a genius who contributed much to the early development of the Internet, including Reddit, Creative Commons, RSS, and more — never made it past age 26. He was driven to suicide by aggressive prosecutors enforcing tragically defective technology law. Aaron’s story is a case in point of our two-tier legal system, where the rich and powerful are treated with kid gloves and the ordinary person suffers disproportionately to the crime. This touching documentary does him some small justice.
As we learn through extensive video footage of his youth, Aaron was indeed the Internet’s own boy. He began playing with computers when he was barely out of diapers and by age 12 had created an early version of Wikipedia (TheInfo.org). By the time he was 14, he was helping to build RSS. He would co-found Reddit a few year later. He and the Internet literally grew up together. What Aaron really liked about it was its ability to make information more accessible; what he hated was blockages to that access, particularly when the blockage was the result of crony capitalism. When one such blockage was brought to his attention, he decided to do something about it.
Law documents and court records are supposed to be freely available to the public; but as a practical matter, they’re not. You can search and find such documents through a company called Pacer, which has an arrangement with governments to act as distributor, but you have to pay a fee. It’s essentially a poll tax to see the laws you are supposed to obey. That offended the justice-minded Aaron to the core, so he built a program to mass download such information to make it publicly accessible. Unfortunately, he came under surveillance by the FBI before he could fully execute his plan.
Shaken but not completely discouraged, he picked a new target: academic articles. Research is paid for largely by taxpayer-funded universities, but through a self-serving crony arrangement ends up locked behind the firewalls of academic journals, accessible only for a fee. Aaron saw the human potential of liberating such research and again took action. He created another program to mass download, but this time was caught red-handed by MIT surveillance cameras and was arrested.
The incident should have ended there, with perhaps an expulsion by MIT or some minor criminal charge. The company from whom the documents had been copied, JSTOR, declined to press any charges, likely anticipating that a full airing of their crony relationship with universities would not be good public relations.
But no, as told in this film, Aaron was destroyed for political reasons. Partly it was an ambitious prosecutor, Stephen Heymann, who breathed life into this case, hoping to make a name for himself, and partly it was growing interest on the part of the Obama administration that saw the hacker community as a political wild card and wanted it contained. In the end, Aaron faced a series of felony charges totaling 35 years in prison, mostly based on terms of service violations — yes, it’s a felony to violate those, though many people do so unwittingly because no one reads the full contract. That’s what they got him for. And that’s why he killed himself.
It’s something of an irony, but Aaron’s politics were progressive, as we learn in a few scenes here. He was apparently oblivious to the fact that the prosecutors pursuing him for political gain were themselves progressive Democrats. But it is an article of faith among college students that such politics are the future, and even a genius has no guarantee of escaping the unexamined. Likely he would have figured it out sooner or later.
By the end of this film, you understand this youthful idealist a bit, you like him, and you feel the tragedy of his loss. And too, you are a bit more aware of how truly unjust our justice system can be and how much work libertarians have ahead of us if the next Aaron Swartz is to be spared. The Internet’s Own Boy is a must-see not just for libertarians but also for anyone in the technology field.
“A moving memorial to Internet whiz kid Aaron Swartz, The Internet’s Own Boy may be the most emotionally devastating movie ever made about hacking and freedom of information.”
“[Aaron Swartz] may indeed have been a martyr to the causes of open source and a democratic Internet. And as Mr. Knappenberger sees it, his subject died for the sins of an overreaching Obama Justice Department…a great story, and one that will grow in prominence as freedom of information, and free information, become hotter and hotter as issues of policy, law and intellectual property.”
–Wall Street Journal
“No one disputes that Swartz broke the law in nabbing the documents, an act likely related to his passionate, stated belief in de-commercializing research and reforming copyright law, but several forces elevated it from a pedestrian hacking case to a national story…Relentless prosecutors spent two years making sure Swartz would do years of hard time for a crime whose victims appeared more than willing to look past.”
How to See It
Verdict: Dealing With Aaron Swartz in the Nixonian Tradition
Columbia Law Review: Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime
Book: Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent
Book: The Tyranny of Good Intentions: How Prosecutors and Law Enforcement Are Trampling the Constitution
Book: One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors Threaten Your Liberty
Book Government Bullies: How Everyday Americans Are Being Abused and Imprisoned by the Feds