If you don’t know the story of Aaron Swartz, you certainly have been impacted by his creations and causes. He was committed to make online content free to the public, and was the developer of Redditt, the largest social bookmarking site.
Unfortunately for the tech world, and the world at large, he killed himself on January 12, 2013 after a two-year legal battle for allegedly hacking computer systems. Before his death, Aaron Swartz was at the forefront of calling for changes in the ways government watches our society.
This was pre-Snowden. He didn’t have all the data, but knew there was massive government overreach. Swartz wouldn’t live to see the the dramatic shift in public opinion on government surveillance, but was disheartened that it hadn’t taken off as a serious issue.
Out this Friday is the documentary ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ by Brian Knappenberger. The filmmaker never met Swartz, but followed the story closely. When it premiered at Sundance, it was immediately put up for the Grand Jury Prize.
The film makes use of archival interviews, news footage and home movies of Swartz. What it shows is a complex individual that battled depression leading up to his death in 2013. It also shows the massive judicial overreach in targeting Swartz.
If you are thinking the charges of hacking, wire fraud and computer fraud meant he hacked the Pentagon, you would be wrong. The alleged target? MIT’s network to download the JSTOR archive. JSTOR is a subscription-only database of scientific journals. The plan was to distribute the information online for free.
Not exactly approaching terrorist levels here. It’s the equivalent of handing everyone encyclopedia. Have you seen the news? People could stand that. The punishment for the crime was up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. No wonder Edward Snowden doesn’t want to come back.
Knappenberger said the case was one of judicial deterrence. “The prosecutor said to Aaron’s father that they need the case for deterrence. They needed to make an example out of him. What kind of behavior were they trying to deter? That’s a really interesting question.”
The prosecutor at the time defended the indictment. “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data and dollars.”
The film is out in theaters today, and also available via iTunes and video on demand. Something tells me the wide net of the release would have Swartz smiling. Information gets out one way or the other. It’s a shame it takes battering rams and people losing their lives over it.