The Internet’s Own Boy

Opening Hot Docs 2014 was The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary about the life of internet pioneer Aaron Swartz. It takes you through the life of Aaron (as an incredibly smart kid, the creation of RSS, the creation and sale of Reddit, etc.) and, in that, Aaron’s development as a person dedicated to making information available to everyone — i.e. allow everyone to gain knowledge free online.

It was during this process to make information available to everyone, that he was caught downloading information from JSTOR (an online holding of academic journals and such) via MIT’s connection, however the end intention of that information wasn’t actually known. Some surmised that he was going to study the data and find a corruption link between study donors and the journal findings.

The documentary talks about other data companies as well, who – per the documentary – take data that was funded/provided by the government/tax payer and then make it available online for a fee (i.e. corporations making money off public or publicly-funded data). I didn’t get this feeling from the documentary but JSTOR lists themselves as a “not-for-profit organization” on their website.

One could question why a company shouldn’t profit from making information online – if they were the ones to digitize and put the information online. i.e. if the government did it themselves, then yes there should be no barriers to the data — but if they had companies do the work then how else would the model work? I suppose the government could simply pay and outsource the work but keep the end digital product in government hands. It seems they went to no-cost route. I’m writing this as someone not educated on the subject, but the documentary definitely takes the slant of the “evil corporations” making money off public data.

Back to the data, Aaron’s ‘breach’ is discovered and the highest levels of US law enforcement get involved to “send a message” and that puts Aaron up for possibly 35 years in jail and a million dollar fine (most of the charges based on an outdated 1984 bill). He can plead guilty and get a few months of jail with some further restrictions, but Aaron declines the plea bargain out of principal.

Interestingly, before the trial starts, JSTOR indicates they no longer want Aaron charged, while MIT enters a “neutral” stance (the latter to the dismay of many in the documentary).

The documentary frames the government prosecutor as someone looking to continue to making a name for himself – and someone who won’t relent on this case — again, to make an example of Aaron. Some surmise that Aaron’s ever growing “activist” ways may have played a role (i.e. if we don’t stop him now, what will happen in the future?) His activism is displayed by his efforts successfully fighting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) – showing what is possible when people are educated and motivated online (and stand up to politicians who are either in bed with donors and/or simply uneducated on technological topics).

In the end, Aaron commits suicide before the trial, and the internet/world lost someone who used his brain not for wealth creation, but for making the world a better place for all.

The documentary is engaging for sure. If you’re not an internet-dork you may find the “life of” part at the beginning a bit long (I loved it however – coding, RSS, Reddit, etc.) before the heart of the story starts to roll.

Teaser:

Excerpt re: activism side of Aaron:

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