A film tells the story of the coder-activist who fought corporate power and corruption — and paid a cruel price
Brian Knappenberger’s Kickstarter-funded documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” which premiered at Sundance barely a year after the legendary hacker, programmer and information activist took his own life in January 2013, feels like the beginning of a conversation about Swartz and his legacy rather than the final word. This week it will be released in theaters, arriving in the middle of an evolving debate about what the Internet is, whose interests it serves and how best to manage it, now that the techno-utopian dreams that sounded so great in Wired magazine circa 1996 have begun to ring distinctly hollow.
What surprised me when I wrote about “The Internet’s Own Boy” from Sundance was the snarky, dismissive and downright hostile tone struck by at least a few commenters. There was a certain dark symmetry to it, I thought at the time: A tragic story about the downfall, destruction and death of an Internet idealist calls up all of the medium’s most distasteful qualities, including its unique ability to transform all discourse into binary and ill-considered nastiness, and its empowerment of the chorus of belittlers and begrudgers collectively known as trolls. In retrospect, I think the symbolism ran even deeper. Aaron Swartz’s life and career exemplified a central conflict within Internet culture, and one whose ramifications make many denizens of the Web highly uncomfortable.
For many of its pioneers, loyalists and self-professed deep thinkers, the Internet was conceived as a digital demi-paradise, a zone of total freedom and democracy. But when it comes to specifics things get a bit dicey. Paradise for whom, exactly, and what do we mean by democracy? In one enduringly popular version of this fantasy, the Internet is the ultimate libertarian free market, a zone of perfect entrepreneurial capitalism untrammeled by any government, any regulation or any taxation. As a teenage programming prodigy with an unusually deep understanding of the Internet’s underlying architecture, Swartz certainly participated in the private-sector, junior-millionaire version of the Internet. He founded his first software company following his freshman year at Stanford, and became a partner in the development of Reddit in 2006, which was sold to Condé Nast later that year.
That libertarian vision of the Internet – and of society too, for that matter – rests on an unacknowledged contradiction, in that some form of state power or authority is presumably required to enforce private property rights, including copyrights, patents and other forms of intellectual property. Indeed, this is one of the principal contradictions embedded within our current form of capitalism, as the Marxist scholar David Harvey notes: Those who claim to venerate private property above all else actually depend on an increasingly militarized and autocratic state. And from the beginning of Swartz’s career he also partook of the alternate vision of the Internet, the one with a more anarchistic or anarcho-socialist character. When he was 15 years old he participated in the launch of Creative Commons, the immensely important content-sharing nonprofit, and at age 17 he helped design Markdown, an open-source, newbie-friendly markup format that remains in widespread use.
One can certainly construct an argument that these ideas about the character of the Internet are not fundamentally incompatible, and may coexist peaceably enough. In the physical world we have public parks and privately owned supermarkets, and we all understand that different rules (backed of course by militarized state power) govern our conduct in each space. But there is still an ideological contest between the two, and the logic of the private sector has increasingly invaded the public sphere and undermined the ancient notion of the public commons. (Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani once proposed that city parks should charge admission fees.) As an adult Aaron Swartz took sides in this contest, moving away from the libertarian Silicon Valley model of the Internet and toward a more radical and social conception of the meaning of freedom and equality in the digital age. It seems possible and even likely that the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” Swartz wrote in 2008, at age 21, led directly to his exaggerated federal prosecution for what was by any standard a minor hacking offense.
Swartz’s manifesto didn’t just call for the widespread illegal downloading and sharing of copyrighted scientific and academic material, which was already a dangerous idea. It explained why. Much of the academic research held under lock and key by large institutional publishers like Reed Elsevier had been largely funded at public expense, but was now being treated as private property – and as Swartz understood, that was just one example of a massive ideological victory for corporate interests that had penetrated almost every aspect of society. The actual data theft for which Swartz was prosecuted, the download of a large volume of journal articles from the academic database called JSTOR, was largely symbolic and arguably almost pointless. (As a Harvard graduate student at the time, Swartz was entitled to read anything on JSTOR.)
But the symbolism was important: Swartz posed a direct challenge to the private-sector creep that has eaten away at any notion of the public commons or the public good, whether in the digital or physical worlds, and he also sought to expose the fact that in our age state power is primarily the proxy or servant of corporate power. He had already embarrassed the government twice previously. In 2006, he downloaded and released the entire bibliographic dataset of the Library of Congress, a public document for which the library had charged an access fee. In 2008, he downloaded and released about 2.7 million federal court documents stored in the government database called PACER, which charged 8 cents a page for public records that by definition had no copyright. In both cases, law enforcement ultimately concluded Swartz had committed no crime: Dispensing public information to the public turns out to be legal, even if the government would rather you didn’t. The JSTOR case was different, and the government saw its chance (one could argue) to punish him at last.
Knappenberger could only have made this film with the cooperation of Swartz’s family, which was dealing with a devastating recent loss. In that context, it’s more than understandable that he does not inquire into the circumstances of Swartz’s suicide in “Inside Edition”-level detail. It’s impossible to know anything about Swartz’s mental condition from the outside – for example, whether he suffered from undiagnosed depressive illness – but it seems clear that he grew increasingly disheartened over the government’s insistence that he serve prison time as part of any potential plea bargain. Such an outcome would have left him a convicted felon and, he believed, would have doomed his political aspirations; one can speculate that was the point. Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Boston, along with her deputy Stephen Heymann, did more than throw the book at Swartz. They pretty much had to write it first, concocting an imaginative list of 13 felony indictments that carried a potential total of 50 years in federal prison.
As Knappenberger explained in a Q&A session at Sundance, that’s the correct context in which to understand Robert Swartz’s public remark that the government had killed his son. He didn’t mean that Aaron had actually been assassinated by the CIA, but rather that he was a fragile young man who had been targeted as an enemy of the state, held up as a public whipping boy, and hounded into severe psychological distress. Of course that cannot entirely explain what happened; Ortiz and Heymann, along with whoever above them in the Justice Department signed off on their display of prosecutorial energy, had no reason to expect that Swartz would kill himself. There’s more than enough pain and blame to go around, and purely on a human level it’s difficult to imagine what agony Swartz’s family and friends have put themselves through.
One of the most painful moments in “The Internet’s Own Boy” arrives when Quinn Norton, Swartz’s ex-girlfriend, struggles to explain how and why she wound up accepting immunity from prosecution in exchange for information about her former lover. Norton’s role in the sequence of events that led to Swartz hanging himself in his Brooklyn apartment 18 months ago has been much discussed by those who have followed this tragic story. I think the first thing to say is that Norton has been very forthright in talking about what happened, and clearly feels torn up about it.
Norton was a single mom living on a freelance writer’s income, who had been threatened with an indictment that could have cost her both her child and her livelihood. When prosecutors offered her an immunity deal, her lawyer insisted she should take it. For his part, Swartz’s attorney says he doesn’t think Norton told the feds anything that made Swartz’s legal predicament worse, but she herself does not agree. It was apparently Norton who told the government that Swartz had written the 2008 manifesto, which had spread far and wide in hacktivist circles. Not only did the manifesto explain why Swartz had wanted to download hundreds of thousands of copyrighted journal articles on JSTOR, it suggested what he wanted to do with them and framed it as an act of resistance to the private-property knowledge industry.
Amid her grief and guilt, Norton also expresses an even more appropriate emotion: the rage of wondering how in hell we got here. How did we wind up with a country where an activist is prosecuted like a major criminal for downloading articles from a database for noncommercial purposes, while no one goes to prison for the immense financial fraud of 2008 that bankrupted millions? As a person who has made a living as an Internet “content provider” for almost 20 years, I’m well aware that we can’t simply do away with the concept of copyright or intellectual property. I never download pirated movies, not because I care so much about the bottom line at Sony or Warner Bros., but because it just doesn’t feel right, and because you can never be sure who’s getting hurt. We’re not going to settle the debate about intellectual property rights in the digital age in a movie review, but we can say this: Aaron Swartz had chosen his targets carefully, and so did the government when it fixed its sights on him. (In fact, JSTOR suffered no financial loss, and urged the feds to drop the charges. They refused.)
A clean and straightforward work of advocacy cinema, blending archival footage and contemporary talking-head interviews, Knappenberger’s film makes clear that Swartz was always interested in the social and political consequences of technology. By the time he reached adulthood he began to see political power, in effect, as another system of control that could be hacked, subverted and turned to unintended purposes. In the late 2000s, Swartz moved rapidly through a variety of politically minded ventures, including a good-government site and several different progressive advocacy groups. He didn’t live long enough to learn about Edward Snowden or the NSA spy campaigns he exposed, but Swartz frequently spoke out against the hidden and dangerous nature of the security state, and played a key role in the 2011-12 campaign to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a far-reaching government-oversight bill that began with wide bipartisan support and appeared certain to sail through Congress. That campaign, and the Internet-wide protest of American Censorship Day in November 2011, looks in retrospect like the digital world’s political coming of age.
Earlier that year, Swartz had been arrested by MIT campus police, after they noticed that someone had plugged a laptop into a network switch in a server closet. He was clearly violating some campus rules and likely trespassing, but as the New York Times observed at the time, the arrest and subsequent indictment seemed to defy logic: Could downloading articles that he was legally entitled to read really be considered hacking? Wasn’t this the digital equivalent of ordering 250 pancakes at an all-you-can-eat breakfast? The whole incident seemed like a momentary blip in Swartz’s blossoming career – a terms-of-service violation that might result in academic censure, or at worst a misdemeanor conviction.
Instead, for reasons that have never been clear, Ortiz and Heymann insisted on a plea deal that would have sent Swartz to prison for six months, an unusually onerous sentence for an offense with no definable victim and no financial motive. Was he specifically singled out as a political scapegoat by Eric Holder or someone else in the Justice Department? Or was he simply bulldozed by a prosecutorial bureaucracy eager to justify its own existence? We will almost certainly never know for sure, but as numerous people in “The Internet’s Own Boy” observe, the former scenario cannot be dismissed easily. Young computer geniuses who embrace the logic of private property and corporate power, who launch start-ups and seek to join the 1 percent before they’re 25, are the heroes of our culture. Those who use technology to empower the public commons and to challenge the intertwined forces of corporate greed and state corruption, however, are the enemies of progress and must be crushed.
”The Internet’s Own Boy” opens this week in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Toronto, Washington and Columbus, Ohio. It opens June 30 in Vancouver, Canada; July 4 in Phoenix, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; and July 11 in Seattle, with other cities to follow. It’s also available on-demand from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu and other providers.