Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 26, 2014 5:47 am 
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A brilliant young idealist crushed by the system he tried to liberate

Okay, The Internet's Own Boy: the Story of Aaron Swartz, Brian Knappenberger's documentary about the computer programming genius and free information activist who committed suicide in January 2013 at the age of 26, is hagiography -- like The United States of Amnesia, the Gore Vidal documentary I recently saw. But both these men, the one who died very young and the one who lived to a great age, are important people who deserve memorials. So here, the makers of the Aaron Swartz film tell us about him. Early on, he rejected school, and he became a dissident from there. Aaron was a great learner. He didn't quite fit in. How could he? He was sweet and charming, but he was also a little strange, and not always at ease with people, or where he was, or with himself. But when you learn that Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, is one of Aaron's great champions, you realize his accomplishments and dreams may be worth knowing about. Hence the value of this documentary, hagiography or not.

The first big point is that for the Web, the "antique" copyright system came to seem antiquated, out of date, inappropriate. As a teenager, Aaron met Lawrence Lessig, who was challenging copyright law. Lessing invented the idea of Creative Commons, which was to be a useful new concept for sharing over a wide field while retaining some rights to intellectual property. Aaron was precocious as well as smart. He went to Washington from his Chicago area home in Highland Park to hear Lessig argue the issues before the Supreme Court. Then Aaron began talking about Creative Commons before audiences, while still a kid, not tall enough for the podiums (later he learned to pace down in front of the podium, closer to the audiences). It turns out his growth was stunted by a steroid he had to take for ulcerative colitis. He went to Stanford, but quickly dropped out of the artificial program to convert young geniuses into "one percenters" and got into the "combinator" program and started "infogami," a program to start your own website. He soon dropped this and got in with some other guys on another project, "reddit," a soon hugely popular hip nerdy new website which he and his friends sold to Condé Nast. He moved from Boston out to San Francisco to work for Condé Nast, but that ended in a messy breakup. The corporate world made Aaron ill, made him run to the restroom and cry. He stopped going to work and was fired.

Aaron left the startup world from then on. He was indifferent to money and also willing to abandon the sphere that had made him a star. He began focusing on freeing up information that ought to be available to everyone, specifically getting libraries online, and offering actual public access to the public domain. Sounds obvious, but in fact the public domain has gatekeepers who charge money for access. Fighting this situation is when Aaron began to get in trouble with the powers that be.

Enter PACER, where the government was profiting $150 million a year making people pay to get public legal documents. Aaron's efforts, using his prodigious programming skills, to liberate the PACER system got the FBI on his tail. This terrified the young man. Nonetheless Aaron, who at this point had a grant from Harvard, decided to choose the JSTOR ("Journal Storage") system of padlocked, pay-for-use scholarly articles and download a large quantity of them at MIT. And when he connected his hard drive and computer directly to MIT's wiring, they spotted it and filmed him, gathering data to prosecute him, rather than just asking him politely to stop as one might expect an intellectual institution that encourages iconoclasm and free thought to do.

Aaron's downloading of huge JSTORE files at MIT resulted in his arrest. The charges against him by the government (which MIT let into this) were eventually greatly expanded to a 13-point indictment, primarily based on a 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a law that is now acknowledged to have been far too broad. A proposed change called Aaron's Law would amend it. These charges at least implied, even with a plea bargain, which he rejected, a felony conviction, a huge fine and potential lengthy jail time. It seems the government wanted to make him an example, though of what, and for whom, was unclear. Ironically, JSTORE dropped any charges, and Aaron's lawyer thinks he'd have won the case. But this was a terrifying and depressing prospect for the sensitive young man, potentially spelling an end to his growing political convictions, which apparently led to his suicide. His civil disobedience, to call it by the Thoreauvian term, went against a world of increasingly monolithic public organisms that make government, university, and corporate worlds interlocking, a time of the greatest possibility of free information ever in a time of the greatest possibility ever of oppression and surveillance that the Edward Snowden revelations have pushed into the domain of public awareness. Aaron Swartz seems a casualty in a larger war that is ongoing. He has been called a martyr.

A year after the arrest, Aaron was instrumental in the extraordinary popular victory against corporate interests in defeating SOPA, the Internet censorship bill. It was proof to Aaron that the life he wanted of changing the world for the better could happen. He also founded an important organization, Demand Progress. This is what makes his story tragic, and yet still hopeful, if we can only have more Aaron Swartzes in the world. And there are people like him, the idealistic hackers, the whistleblowers, for whom he can be a model and an ideal. Free information is apparently the big enemy of this constitutional lawyer's presidency.

There is detailed information meticulously recounted in the film, but the account skims through parts of the chronology of Aaron's life and provides little of an intimate, personal nature. This is understandable. We're interested in what Aaron did, not his private life. And we do hear from his girlfriend, whom he lived with, with her child, when she separated from her husband. Their life together was peaceful for both of them, she says. Even for the story of Aaron's public life this film is only one way of telling it. There might be many other ways. But it seems an acceptable way and perhaps one that at least suits those who admire and love him.

Aaron Swartz: The Internet's Own Boy, 107 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2014. It releases in US theaters 27 June 2014.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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