The brief but bright life of Aaron Swartz – R.I.P.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is required viewing for anyone who values free speech and justice. Brian Knappenberger’s riveting documentary is also a case study in Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department’s selective prosecution. As we know, the Obama administration has not prosecuted the financial sector for basically wrecking much of the world economy.

While Big Brother and the Holder Company gave Wall Street a pass, “Our prison population,” as Matt Taibbi has pointed out, “is now the biggest in the history of human civilization.” But who does the DOJ decide to throw the book at? Internet whiz kid Aaron Swartz, who at the age of 14 helped develop RSS (“Really Simple Syndication,” as it enables automatic summarization of online information). The Chicago-born prodigy went on to cofound the social networking and news website Reddit, a platform for Net communities.

Swartz attended Stanford and became a fellow at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. The passionate advocate of Internet freedom and free access to information became an off- and online activist, harnessing the power of the Web to monitor the powers that be. In 2008 he founded to aggregate data about politicians, and helped launch the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

A sort of Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden of academia, from September 2010 to January 2011 Swartz is believed to have mass downloaded documents from MIT’s JSTOR database, a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources. Although it’s not certain what Swartz’s motivation was for allegedly doing so, the hacktivist was apparently attempting to thwart efforts to profiteer off of human knowledge by making this information available free of charge to the general public, which is a recurring theme of The Internet’s Own Boy.

In early 2011, the Secret Service and Cambridge Police Department started investigating. The U.S. Attorney’s office opened a criminal investigation into the hacking of MIT’s network. Swartz’s office and home were raided, and grand jury and subpoena actions commenced. Although JSTOR declined to press charges and MIT proclaimed its “neutrality” in the matter, federal prosecutor Stephen P. Heymann, who had a background in prosecuting computer hacking, pursued the case with Inspector Javert-like intensity. On July 14, 2011, Swartz was charged with four felony counts, including theft of computer information, and the 24-year-old was arrested days later.

It was bulldog versus watchdog. Aaron pled not guilty to an eventual 13 felony counts against him. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange may have been beyond Washington’s reach, and the underground collective Anonymous too cagey to be caught (Knappenberger previously directed the 2012 documentary We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists). But Swartz was within the system’s grasp, and it appears the DOJ was determined to make an example of him. Faced with economic ruin and imprisonment for years by a vengeful administration — the Obama regime has been extraordinarily vindictive toward whistleblowers, charging more people with the Espionage Act than all previous U.S. administrations combined — the free-spirited Aaron appears to have been pushed over the edge on January 11, 2013. But on March 6, an unrepentant Attorney General Holder defended Swartz’s prosecution before a Senate committee.

Matt Taibbi exposes that when Holder became a Clinton administration deputy attorney general, he formulated the theory of “collateral consequences” for charging corporations. This concept maintains that when considering corporate wrongdoing, prosecutors “may take into account” how a trial and conviction might affect a firm’s employees and the possible impact on the economy. This doctrine has resulted in fewer and fewer prosecutions, with fines for corporations but no jail time for CEOs and banksters. Apparently, Holder and Heymann did not take into account Swartz’s youthfulness or that since childhood he’d suffered from ulcerative colitis — or that the institutions he’d purportedly hacked were not pressing charges. (See my interview with Matt Taibbi in the summer issue of The Progressive Magazine.)

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is compelling and powerful, combining archival footage and original interviews with notable academics and politicians, as well as Aaron’s relatives, friends, and lovers. This gripping, must-see documentary — especially relevant as the struggle for Net neutrality continues and the Snowden case unfolds — is being released theatrically and on Amazon and Hulu.

R.I.P. Aaron Swartz: Your bulb burned briefly, but brightly.

Film Review

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Directed by Brian Knappenberger

2014, Not rated, 105 mins.

Photo: Aaron Swartz at a 2009 Boston Wikipedia Meetup (CC).



Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.