Saturday, June 21, 2014

"The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz": powerful biography


The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz”, directed by Brian Knappenberger, is indeed moving biography (facts). The earliest scenes show a boy prodigy similar in intellect and quick cognition to Mark Zuckerberg.  He was in the working group that created RSS at age 14, before others knew how young he was.  By 21 or so, he had probably become a millionaire by the acquisition of Reddit by Conde Nast. His activism, with the elaborate downloads from PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) started to lead toward legal trouble.  Swartz passionately fought for the idea that public domain information should be available to the public as easily as possible, whereas PACER was earning money for a publisher (Elsevier) to provide court documents.  His big legal troubles would begin after he downloaded academic journals from JSTOR, wih a “breakin” of an unsecured server area at MIT.  (The film shows video surveillance of his entry inti the server area and placement of a harddrive from his backpack.) His intention seems to have been to cross reference information among the documents to support progressive causes (like climate change). 
  
The film shows the physical transformation of Swartz into an adult.  He had ulcerative colitis as a teen and took steroids, which affected his appearance; but by age 20 or so he seems to have outgrown that, and looks quite attractive in the film as a young adult, with a real physical presence.  He had a couple of romantic relationships with young women, which may have been largely platonic.  
  
The last 40 minutes of the film examines the overzealous prosecution of Swartz, with counts of wire fraud and violations of the outdated 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (supposedly motivated by the 1983 film “War Games”).  Prosecutors in Boston seemed to trap themselves in their own cyclical slippery slope.  They said they wanted to make an example of Swartz, but they seemed to think that the public would perceive Swartz as like a typical Russian cybercriminal, or perhaps would conflate his activity with those of Wikileaks (Assange, Manning and later Snowden).  Swartz simply was following his own passionate belief that access to knowledge or the right to disseminate it should not depend on social authority or artificial competition.  Swartz was offered a plea deal, which he refused.  His girlfriend feared that her own computer would be confiscated.   Eventually, indictments piled up while he was on bail; in the meantime, Swartz was largely responsible for the 2012 protests (including Wikiupedia and Reddit blackout) which destroyed support in Congress for SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act). Had it past, service providers might have been forced to prescreen user generated content for copyright infringement, ending self-publishing on the Internet as we know it now (a similar problem exists with downstream libel protections and Section 230, not covered in the film).  Swartz grew despondent as his legal pressures grew, and he was found to have hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment in January 2013.
  
Had the case gone to trail, it sounds likely he would have been convicted, but it is also very likely that the convictions would have been overturned on appeal.  Can it be a crime to steal public domain information?

There would seem to be an issue with JSTOR inasmuch as many academic journals require paid subscription.  JSTOR and MIT did not want to prosecute, but the government would not relent.
  
Tim Berners-Lee (largely the inventor of the way the WWW uses HTML) often comments in the film.
  
The film cites the work of teen scientist Jack Andraka (inventor of a test for pancreatic cancer) as an example of the benefits of Open Access as supported by Swartz. (TV blog, Nov. 6, 2013).


The official website is here. The film comes from Participant Media and FilmBuff.
  
I saw a screening today at AFI Docs at the Silver theater, large auditorium in Silver Spring, a near sell out.  The director (along with Matt Stoller) was present for QA.

There’s a scene where Swartz talks about a “library” in a way that recalls the “It’s Free” video (2012) by Reid Ewing (the Igigistudios site that has hosted it is down right now; hope it is back soon), discussed May 13, 2013.  

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