The Internet’s Own Boy – The Aaron Swartz Story

Posted 3 years ago by myetvmedia

“The Internet’s Own Boy” about internet prodigy and activist Aaron Swartz opens the Toronto International Documentary Film Festival HotDocs 2014. It is one of the most significant documentaries of the decade. It sends a chilling message about the potential fragility of internet freedom today and by extension our personal freedoms. Aaron Swartz’s untimely death at the age of 26 (1986 – 2013) was a shock and a tragic loss to the world.

Award winning director Brian Knappenberger (We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, PBS’s Frontline/World, National Geographic Society, Bloomberg News, Discovery Channel) presents Aaron’s story through interviews with those who knew and loved him. We see a sensitive, highly intelligent, young man whose mantra in life was to give more than he took. The documentary takes a stance supported across the internet and the media, implicating the US Justice Department and MIT for their actions. It is key message at this time as Canada, the US, China and 9 other nations attempt to put in place the Trans-Pacific Trade and Partnership Agreement (TPP) which has been identified as a potentially great threat to internet freedoms.

Aaron Swartz’s family, friends, and supporters believe the prosecutors are to blame for Aaron’s death. It seems clear his vulnerability was deliberately exploited by those empowered to protect him. The prosecutors set out to make an international example of him using antiquated laws to turn downloading academic files into multiple heinous felonies. The world saw differently. In 2012 Aaron was posthumously inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame and awarded an honorary Lifetime Achievement Award and the American Library Association’s James Madison Award, for people who “championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know at the national level.” A far cry from the dangerous internet felon described by the US Justice department. People were shocked by Aaron’s death. Just 6 months later, the antiquated 1980’s CFAA law of the Cold War era used to indict him and others like him was exposed. Two US senators have since been championing replacing CFAA with a new law, ‘Aaron’s Law’ which will reflect the modern realities of the internet and hopefully prevent such miscarriages of justice happening again. Aaron Swartz Internet Prodigy:

Aaron was an internet prodigy, a programming pioneer, creating programing that has vastly improved ease of internet use (RSS web feed, Reddit, Creative Commons). As an early internet activist he championed the hugely successful campaign (Demand Progress) that effectively defeated the SOPA bill before the US Senate in 2012. SOPA was a sweeping, ill conceived law that would have stifled the internet as we know it.

The historic campaign against SOPA’s proposed unprecedented internet censorship included internet blackouts, demonstrations and participation by a previously unthinkable number of organizations and millions of individuals. Aaron Swartz was a Fellow at Harvard University in the Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption as well he had studied at Stanford and MIT. He had a great social conscience and through his work had already effected significant political and social change. He had previously exposed federal and corporate corruption with his internet research on public records and the legal system. His provision of easy access to information and research documents via the internet has also resulted in the discovery by a 14 year-old boy of a ground-breaking early detection method for pancreatic cancer. This testing is now in use. Aaron although originally quite reclusive now had serious political aspirations.

Aaron Is Arrested, Charged & Dies:

When Aaron came to the attention of the authorities Wikileaks had just embarrassed the US government and the military. Other internet whistleblowers had stepped forward. It is believed federal prosecutors wanted to treat Aaron Swartz as a similar threat. The circumstances surrounding Aaron Swartz arrest and persecution by federal appointees is complicated but well presented in this documentary. In 2011 and 2012 he was arrested and placed under indictment on multiple federal charges for downloading millions of MIT (Mass. Institute of Technology) library files from the campus closet. The files were managed through the company JSTOR. He did not sell or distribute these files. The prosecutors wanted Aaron sentenced to 35 years in jail, to forfeit his assets, never touch a computer again, pay a million dollars in fines, provide restitution for alleged acts and finally only be released under supervision. Aaron suffered from a severe gastrointestinal disease aggravated by stress.

Aaron’s Death – Why?

Aaron Swartz was arrested and indicted on the strength of an antiquated law called The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The CFAA was designed to deal with Cold War realities of the ‘80’s, to protect banks and government programs like NORAD and was inspired by a movie called ‘War Games’. The FBI used this law to add 11 more charges to the 2 from MIT. MIT administrators who were in a position to intercede and deal with this on an internal level, despite many requests for their help, stayed silent, remaining ‘neutral’ as they put it. MIT police did press 2 charges of alleged break-and-enter. Aaron was terrified of the FBI, by his arrest, but he refused to take the prosecution’s plea bargain because he did not believe in it. As a convicted felon he would also have no political future. His death 2 days after declining the plea bargain came as a complete shock to everyone. People could not believe it or accept it. MIT came under heavy criticism for their stance. As a result of Aaron’s death a new law called “Aaron’s Law” is being championed by Senators Ron Wyden and Zoe Logren. When passed by Congress, it will replace the antiquated 1980’s CFAA law bringing the law in line with computer use in today.

Swartz’s father Robert, who ironically is a consultant to the MIT Media Lab, is critical of the way the institution conducted itself during his son’s case. “MIT broke a number of statutes, including violating Aaron’s Fourth Amendment rights,” Robert Swartz told TIME. MIT has maintained that it was neutral during the federal government’s investigation, but Robert Swartz disputes that claim. “MIT wasn’t neutral. They supported the government, when they should have been supporting Aaron.” By Sam Gustin @samgustinJune 27, 2013

Conclusions:

Aaron’s superior knowledge of technology combined with his social conscience was a dangerous combination. It appears that Aaron Swartz was persecuted for the very rights and freedoms he sought to defend. The threatened consequences of any wrong-doing he may have been responsible for were in drastic contrast to any of those that had been given to out to people who had been convicted for really significant crimes such as the downfall of the US economy through bank and financial fraud for example. Aaron Swartz never harmed anyone or caused harm to come to them by his actions. This documentary suggests that Aaron chose suicide in 2013 as the only escape from the prolonged stress he was suffering, apparently inflicted by the FBI’s relentless determination to make him an example of alleged internet felonies.

Privacy, free speech and the application of technology are cutting edge issues today. Technology offers the ability today to share vast amounts of knowledge very rapidly and with everyone. There are great benefits to this and at the same time things that should be safeguarded.

There are many reasons to weep while watching this film. Aaron Swartz was a genius. His work provided great benefit to the world and his untimely passing is a great loss. We cannot afford to lose and discourage bright young minds in such a frivolous way. We cannot have internet freedom curtailed. Highly recommended for all. A Sundance Film Festival favourite. Aaron’s story has received extensive media attention.

Moira Romano

               

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