Death of a Hacktivist

A new documentary on Aaron Swartz.

Patricia Aufderheide May 19, 2014

Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in 2013. (Creative Commons)

Aaron Swartz was an Inter­net prodi­gy and a trou­ble-mak­er. The new doc­u­men­tary The Internet’s Own Boy: The Sto­ry of Aaron Swartz is not only about Swartz, but about why we should care about the issues he cared about, and the trou­ble that trig­gered his sui­cide. Swartz was com­mit­ted to an open and secure Inter­net, and was acute­ly aware of how that open­ness is com­pro­mised in dif­fer­ent ways every day. To Bri­an Knap­pen­berg­er, the film’s direc­tor, Swartz was some­thing of a canary in a coal mine. We all live mas­sive­ly net­worked lives,” Knap­pen­berg­er explains. All our lives have an Inter­net com­po­nent to them. So every­one lives online and yet no one knows how it works.”

It would be easy to make Swartz into a martyr of a utopian digital free culture. The story Knappenberger decided to tell, however, is more nuanced and useful to us all.

Swartz, who was only 26 when he died in 2013, was a child of the Inter­net. He grew up with com­put­ers and began writ­ing code at a young age. He was a furi­ous inven­tor; as a teen he helped design the web feed ser­vice RSS and the copy­right licens­ing sys­tem Cre­ative Com­mons. At 20, Swartz got rich when Red­dit (the crowd-source aggre­ga­tor with which he’d merged his own start-up site) was sold to Condé Nast.

The film tracks the devel­op­ment of an extra­or­di­nary tal­ent, who used his tal­ents in unortho­dox ways to resist both mon­ey and pow­er. Up until his strike-it-rich moment, Swartz could have been any of a num­ber of Sil­i­con Val­ley whiz kids. But then he just walked away from the game; as his one-time girl­friend explains in the film, he want­ed his work to change the world, not just make mon­ey. He couldn’t find a way to do that in start-up cul­ture, so he head­ed east, and cast about for social change.

“[Swartz] was con­cerned about the walling off of infor­ma­tion,” says Knap­pen­berg­er. He was out­raged that a core beau­ty of the Inter­net — the abil­i­ty to share infor­ma­tion — was being restrict­ed because of cor­po­rate design and being used by the pow­er­ful for sur­veil­lance both of cit­i­zens and con­sumers. In response, he tried to mobi­lize his com­mu­ni­ty of geeks and wonks. He nur­tured the Free Cul­ture move­ment, which push­es back on copy­right restric­tions. In con­junc­tion with Carl Mala­mud of Pub​lic​.Resource​.Org, he protest­ed the gov­ern­men­t’s charg­ing for fed­er­al court records by the down­load­ing mil­lions of pages of records and mak­ing them avail­able for free online. He found­ed the advo­ca­cy group Demand Progress to push for open access and open Inter­net policies.

Swartz also protest­ed, like many oth­ers, the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of human knowl­edge in aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals, which pri­vate com­pa­nies sell to libraries at extra­or­di­nar­i­ly high prices. It was this injus­tice that spurred him to a new act of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence, as the film reveals through inter­views, sur­veil­lance footage and news clips. He got into an open clos­et at MIT, where a serv­er let him access a trove of aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals kept behind a pay­wall by the non­prof­it JSTOR. He down­loaded a mas­sive num­ber. MIT report­ed him to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, which slapped 13 felony charges on him, nine of them under the Com­put­er Fraud and Abuse Act. That leg­is­la­tion, which metas­ta­sized post‑9/​11, makes even ordi­nary house­hold acts such as shar­ing your Net­flix pass­word poten­tial­ly pun­ish­able as felonies.

While the gov­ern­ment ramped up its case, Swartz kept on protest­ing. He helped lead the fight that even­tu­al­ly stopped leg­is­la­tion known as SOPA/ PIPA (that was the moment when Wikipedia, Craigslist and oth­er sites all went black for a day), which could well have bro­ken the mechan­ics of Inter­net traffic.

Although his lawyer believed he could have argued Swartz’s inno­cence, the activist appar­ent­ly became increas­ing­ly despon­dent, and in Jan­u­ary 2013 he hanged him­self. In the Inter­net activist com­mu­ni­ty, the news was shat­ter­ing. The hack­er group Anony­mous con­duct­ed hack­ing demon­stra­tions, there were vig­ils, and Swartz became a symbol.

But a sym­bol of what? That is where The Inter­net’s Own Boy is so smart, as well as engag­ing. It would be easy to make Swartz into a mar­tyr of a utopi­an, dig­i­tal free cul­ture. The sto­ry Knap­pen­berg­er decid­ed to tell, how­ev­er, is more nuanced and use­ful to us all, find­ing the polit­i­cal frame­work in which this is not only a per­son­al tragedy, but a sto­ry about what is at stake in Inter­net pol­i­cy­mak­ing. Its sig­nif­i­cance is in the way in which Swartz crossed gov­ern­men­tal forces that threat­en our civ­il rights and inhib­it the evo­lu­tion of a demo­c­ra­t­ic and demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly mon­i­tored Inter­net — by spy­ing on us, encour­ag­ing vast over­reach of copy­right hold­ers and using gov­ern­men­tal force to bul­ly protesters.

The Internet’s Own Boy is dark­er in its sto­ry­telling than Knappenberger’s pre­vi­ous film, We Are Legion: The Sto­ry of the Hack­tivists, which tracked the devel­op­ment of Anony­mous from a group of reck­less nihilists to a pro­lif­er­a­tion of sub­cul­tures in which one dom­i­nant strand was made up of thought­ful free-speech activists.

I made We Are Legion on the heels of the Julian Assange war­logs, the denial-of-ser­vice attacks by Anony­mous, Tunisia, Arab Spring, Occu­py. That film reflect­ed that ener­gy,” says Knap­pen­burg­er. But the year after that was the year of the crack­down. We saw that over­reach. This is … a dark­er sto­ry, for a dark­er time.”

Knap­pen­berg­er deeply respects and shares Swartz’s con­cern for open access, but he also has a film to sell. Knap­pen­berg­er says that he received huge finan­cial offers” for the film after it debuted at Sun­dance in Jan­u­ary. But I was ded­i­cat­ed to the spir­it of the film and to Aaron’s free-access and Cre­ative Com­mons prin­ci­ples,” he explains. I want­ed to use a non­com­mer­cial, share-alike Cre­ative Com­mons license.” Under such a license, the user pledges not to sell the work, and to share it with­out alter­ing it.

In the end, Knap­pen­berg­er chose Par­tic­i­pant Media, a com­pa­ny launched by for­mer eBay pres­i­dent Jeff Skoll, to make his uncon­ven­tion­al vision a real­i­ty. Par­tic­i­pant is com­mit­ted to social action, and its engage­ment wing, TakePart, is busy struc­tur­ing an action plan for view­ers who want to get involved. When the film is released in the­aters in June, it will be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly avail­able on most dig­i­tal plat­forms, includ­ing Par­tic­i­pan­t’s own TV chan­nel, Piv­ot. Vimeo will do elec­tron­ic sales, but with­out the encryp­tion that would keep buy­ers from sharing.

So it won’t be made avail­able for free, but we aren’t going to stop you from shar­ing what you bought,” says Knap­pen­berg­er. Let’s see if it cov­ers the costs. I’m not uncon­di­tion­al­ly okay with pira­cy, but I err on the side of more shar­ing is better.” 

Knap­pen­berg­er hopes that The Inter­net’s Own Boy makes clear that we’re all in the Inter­net fam­i­ly now: The Inter­net isn’t for hack­ers and geeks any­more. The Inter­net is for all of us. It’s a machine made of code and laws, and every­one should be able to have a say in it, because it’s the new commons.” 

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Patri­cia Aufder­hei­de, a pro­fes­sor in the School of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Wash­ing­ton, was cul­ture edi­tor of In These Times from 1978 to 1986. Now a senior edi­tor of the mag­a­zine, her most recent book is Reclaim­ing Fair Use: How to Put Bal­ance Back in Copy­right, co-authored with Peter Jaszi.
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