Aaron Swartz started computer programming at a very young age. First it was a Star Wars trivia game he made with his brother, but soon it was more than just kid stuff. At 12 years old, he created the Info Network, a website where people could share information – think Wikipedia before there was Wikipedia. By 13, Swartz was part of a committee that drafted the RSS web feed format, he was one of the early authors of Creative Commons and was a co-founder of Reddit. But he was a computer whiz kid whose goals were loftier than conquering Silicon Valley - he wanted to make the world a better place.
Swartz turned his computer genius to political organizing and he became a champion of information sharing and online freedoms. But his activism didn't come without a cost: he faced 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for downloading scholarly articles from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leading to a two-year legal battle with the federal government that ended when Swartz took his own life on January 11, 2013.
Soon after Swartz's death, director Brian Knappenberger, whose previous film was We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, began filming a documentary about his life. Although Knappenberger didn’t know Swartz personally, he was “inspired, infuriated and frustrated” by his suicide, and saw his life not only as a compelling film, but a call to action to continue the work Swartz had started.
Bio talked to Knappenberger as he prepared for today's nationwide release of The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.
Do you think Aaron was largely a victim of circumstance? Or would the crack down on "computer crime" have inevitably snared him at some point, given his determination to push the envelope on matters of open access?
I think you can’t separate Aaron’s story from the climate or the landscape in which it happened. Within a couple of weeks of Aaron’s arrest, WikiLeaks had released the diplomatic cables and the Afghan War logs and the PayPal 14 had conducted denial of service attacks against MasterCard, Visa and PayPal when those companies cut off financial services to WikiLeaks. It was also the beginning of the Arab Spring, and that year saw unprecedented hacker and hacktivist activity that ended with the Occupy movement. Time magazine’s Person of the Year was “The Protestor.” The year after that was the year of the crackdown and I do think Aaron got caught up in that. There was a kind of storm that happened with prosecutors being overzealous and a broken criminal justice system. He walked into that system where once that machinery got moving, it could never turn back.
In the film, Aaron’s lawyer is confident he would have won the criminal case. Do you think he's right?
I think he genuinely had reasons to believe that they were going to win, and that a lot of the main evidence that they were going to use against Aaron was going to be thrown out. Obviously this was very tough for Aaron because there was never going to be another plea deal. He had turned down all of the pleas, the trial was looming and the pressure was on. Aaron ended up committing suicide within a few days of the two-year anniversary of his first arrest, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
He was only 26 when he died, but he accomplished so much in his brief life. What do you feel were Aaron’s greatest contributions?
I think a lot of people are inspired by his early years when he was in his mid to late teens and was such a substantive contributor to the early Internet. That legacy will live on. But then he made a turn from a very rich, post-Reddit sale 19-year-old who was in this build-to-flip, money machine start-up culture to being a crusader for social justice. He started using Internet tools to build grassroots political movements that really put his skills toward the public good. And I think ultimately that is what a lot of people will take away from his story. Certainly, there are bigger problems to focus on too, problems with our criminal justice system, problems with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, outdated computer laws.
Why isn't there more of a push to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the 1986 law the feds used to prosecute him? Who benefits from keeping the law in its current form? Specifically, who in the technology industry benefits?
There was big movement to change the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act after Aaron died. One effort was called Aaron’s Law and honestly back at that point it looked like it was going to be pretty easy. Anybody who looks at this law can see that it’s nonsense. You don’t have to be technically inclined to know that we live in a different world now than we did in the 80s. The problem is that it is being stalled and a lot of tech companies have put up these hurdles that were unexpected. One of the [companies] that argued in those committees against changing the law were the representatives from Oracle. They liked that the law is kind of broad and vague and can be used for almost anything. You’d expect a little more support from the tech community, but in fact it’s quite the opposite.
You're releasing your film under a Creative Commons license. What kind of free distribution, copying, and remixing will that allow? How will that affect your ability to recoup the investment in your film?
The way were going to do this is the movie is going to be in theaters in 25 cities nationwide on June 27th. It’s also going to be on video on demand and there is going to be a Vimeo version that is Creative Commons that can be shared, but it can’t be shared commercially. We’ll see how it affects our ability to recoup. It was important to do for a lot of reasons, but principally for Aaron. I had a lot of offers at Sundance, but they had to comport to this or else I wasn’t going to take them even though they were, let’s just say, distracting.
What issue or issues do you think Aaron might be focused on these days, were he alive?
Well, who knows? You can look at Demand Progress [the Internet activist organization Aaron founded] to get a clue about that. But there are two issues where I wish we had his energy. The NSA overreach and these revelations of mass suspicion-less surveillance of American citizens. A lot of people see it as a huge overreach and encroachment on constitutional rights and civil liberties. I have a feeling that Aaron would have been a warrior in that battle. The other area is net neutrality – it is clear he would have been involved with that. It really looks like net neutrality might be going the way of the Atari system.
What suggestions might you have for people who would like to honor and help further his legacy?
I think you can get up to speed about Internet issues and why it’s important. The Internet isn’t just a realm of geeks and hackers. It’s the place where we live now, and so we have to import into this world all of the things that we think are important from traditional notions of civil liberties, freedom of speech and protection from being searched by our government without due process. I think people can get informed about that and take their Congress folk to task to learn about these issues before they legislate these issues. But in a broader personal sense think of what you can do for the public good. We all have skills. You don’t have to be a genius hacker. What can you do for public service and how can you make things better?