The Internet’s Own Boy

aaron swartz libraryTHERE’S THIS passage in Gemara about whether the angel of death can make a mistake. Gemara is part of the Talmud, and so the—I think about that. You know, it just doesn’t seem to make sense to me. But I don’t know, I—I just think it’s not a question I’ll ever answer.

–Robert Swartz, The New Yorker

Before Steve Job’s and Steve Wozniak invented Apple computers they began by phone hacking with a blue box device, which allowed users to make unbillable long distance phone calls, essentially defrauding the telephone company. In his initial design of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg hacked into Harvard Connections, enabling private student Facebook accounts to become public as users were able to vote on which profile was “hotter.”  Zuckerberg received academic probation and Woz and Steve, we know the rest. . .

As Aaron Swartz’s father, Robert Swartz, points out in the film The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz directed by Brian Knappenberger, the difference between those people and Aaron was that “Aaron wanted to make the world a better place, he didn’t just want to make money.”  Unfortunately Aarons fate did not match that of his predecessors, last year he hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment while facing thirty five years in prison for hacking into M.I.T.’s JSTOR accounts in order to (as some have suggested in the film) make the academic journal’s accessible to the public, or research the journals funding sources to ensure credibility.  As Aaron saw it, he was on a mission—ideas crushed limitations, and if boundaries did exist it was his job to cross them.

Aaron’s personal chaos, like most prodigies, was his inability to cope with the rest of the world. As described in a New Yorker article written shortly after his death, Aaron’s commitment to compassion was almost “pathological,” he had immense difficulty living in the world and therefor dedicated his life to changing it.  In one of his blog posts Aaron describes sitting on a plane unable to ask the flight attendant for water, thirsty as hell. He lived in a place of vast ideas where everything mattered, learning how to read at the age of three and creating “The Info Network” at twelve (Wikipedia before Wikipedia), and the thought of asking a flight attendant or any waitress for something was unsettling, as those vocations were degrading to Aaron.

By the age of 19, after merging his software company Infogami with Reddit, a social networking website, Aaron was a millionaire.  He attempted to work as a “civilian,” but by day one he was in the bathroom crying.  As Aaron mentioned in his blog Raw Thought “Wired has tried to make the offices look exciting by painting the walls bright pink but the gray office monotony sneaks through all the same. Gray walls, gray desks, gray noise.” 

While the New Yorker article attempted to go beyond prosecutorial zeal to explain his suicide (Aaron had ulcerative colitis which resulted in a compulsion to only eat white foods and often led to depressive episodes), Knappenberger’s film primarily focuses on the court case while exploring Aaron’s genius and social conciseness.  Like many documentary’s, it is activism at its most illustrative and perhaps profound form.   These days people only remember shit if it’s presented visually and let’s face it, the “occupy” movement stained protests.

The film begins with Aaron as a small child reading Paddington at the Fair; Paddington’s curiosity is endless as he tries every ride.  With family and news footage weaved throughout the film, Aaron’s curiosity is palpable—the instructor of the family, teaching his younger brother Algebra, and at fifteen joining Creative Commons, barely reaching the podium as he presents an archetype for computer licensing at the launch in 2002.

Beginning at a young age Aaron wanted everyone to question the nature of restrictions and why they were put in place.  And as a freshman at Stanford he downloaded Westlaw while working on a project with Stanford Law students.  His goal was to research the legal databases funding sources and determine if financial interests affected judicial decisions.  But academic life did not hold his attention for long and he dropped out after a year.

When Carl Malamud, the founder of, asked for participants to download PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) in order to establish a free marketplace for court documents, Aaron obliged by downloading 2.7 million federal court records.  Although Aaron caught the attention of the FBI, considering the laws were, well, public, the government decided not to press charges.

In the winter of 2011 Aaron went a step further by downloading JSTOR (a database for electronic journals) at M.I.T., an institution which prides itself in its hacking culture.  Once M.I.T. become aware that their system was in breach they contacted the Government who, instead of stopping the downloads, kept them going in effort to prolong the investigation and establish a stronger case.  Once Aaron was spotted on surveillance video he was arrested, arraigned and released on $100,000 bail.

Initially Aaron was only arraigned on two state charges of breaking and entering with the intent to commit a felony.  Once indicted on federal charges including wire fraud, computer fraud, and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, it was clear the government was more interested in precedence than justice.  Hacker cases and the laws designed to prosecute them are toddlers, with slight equilibrium, therefore cases such as Aarons are prosecuted in order to establish president for future cases.

Aaron decided not to accept the plea bargain of six months in prison.  Although the film makes it clear that he had political aspirations and therefor did not want to be a convicted felon  (felons are not allowed to hold public office nor are they allowed to vote), one would also assume a public trial was in line with Aaron’s principles—the governments case and namely the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (responsible for eleven of Aaron’s thirteen charges) would be put into question.

The most remarkable aspect of the film and Aaron’s story, aside from his tragic death, is the legal framework behind his case.  As Cindy Cohen, the legal director and general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation describes, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was “inspired by the film War Games.”  You know the one; a then pretty Mathew Broderick plays a hacker who unknowingly starts a nuclear war. During the cold war the film was scary enough to get congress to pass the bill in 1986, listing broad computer abuses.  It would be safe to assume that all of us commit these crimes daily.

Penalizing terms of service is an example used in the film to explain the illogical nature of the Act.  For example, according to Seventeen Magazines terms of service on their website (which was taken down last year), you must be at least eighteen years old to read the magazine.  Technically if one does not follow these terms of service agreements they are committing a felony.

With federal prosecutors refusing to be interviewed for the film, the dissension was provided by former U.S. attorney Orin Kerr where he clarifies why the government went after Aaron with an incredible amount of zeal:

I think the government took Swartz’s “Gorilla Open Access Manifesto” (Aaron’s online declaration supporting free knowledge) very seriously.  They saw him as someone who was committed as a moral imperative to breaking the law, to overcoming a law that Swartz saw as unjust [. . .] What was driving the prosecution was the sense that Swartz was committed, not just to breaking the law, but to really making sure that law was nullified, that everyone would have access to the database in a way that you couldn’t put the toothpaste back into the tube.  Ultimately [this is] a decision for the American people to make working through congress [. . .] We are now entering this different environment of computers and computer misuse and we don’t yet have a really strong sense of exactly what these lines are.

Aaron committed a crime, several in fact, and was attempting to null aspects of those laws through illegal actions as he did by downloading the Pacer documents.   While Kerr establishes a masterful legal argument, the human argument would go a little something like this:

My friend told me a story once about a cop who pulled him over while he was drunk; the cop had every right to give him a DUI, but told him to call a friend instead.  My friend, twenty-two at the time, was able to keep his job (you were fired at Costco if you got a DUI) and go about his young life, a bit wiser and perhaps more thankful.  Unlike my friend, Aaron was not putting anyone in danger.

Those featured in the documentary would conclude that Aaron’s actions were not harmful, why not just take him aside after the JSTOR incident? O.K. kid the gig is up.  The only entity he seemed to be harming were the publishers in JSTOR.  Authors of research studies are paid a flat fee, either by a University or the public.  Once all of their labor intensive work is done they hand over their research and copyright to publishers, often multimillion dollar corporations.

We needed Aaron more than he needed us. Like Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg, Aaron would have been a force in the technical and social world.  Imagine if Harvard had decided to take up federal charges against Zuckerberg? There would be no check-in’s at Pet Smart and Lil Kim’s baby name, Royal Rein would not be #Trending.   Aaron was prepared to do much more than provide a social network of sonograms, but the universe couldn’t hold him long enough.

Aaron’s Law

Currently a campaign is underway to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  Legislation which has been introduced by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Watch the Film Online

Normally I do not include free links to films, but Aaron would have wanted it this way. The link can be found at The Internet Archive, which provides free access to researchers, historians, scholars, the print disabled, and the general public.



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