Many people have not heard of Aaron Swartz but chances are they have benefited from his ideas. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is a moving documentary that recounts Swartz’s life as an internet prodigy and activist. Swartz’s family, Lawrence Lessig, and web inventor Tim Berners-Lee among others speak about Aaron’s genius and the beliefs he held which led him to turn his back on the corporate world and to the fight for internet freedom.
The film chronicles Swartz’s childhood and the various projects he helped develop—from the Creative Commons platform, to Reddit, to the victorious campaign to stop SOPA, a bill that would have infringed on internet users’ First Amendment rights as well as web innovation.
It then goes on to cover the dire fallout Swartz faced after he was found downloading a large number of academic journal articles from JSTOR on the campus of MIT. Although JSTOR dropped charges against Swartz, the federal government continued to pursue charges and indicted him under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (which came into effect in 1986). After two years of immense pressure concerning the case and potentially facing 35 years of incarceration, Swartz committed suicide at the age of 26. The grief of those close to Swartz is palpable as is anger directed at the government’s prosecution and MIT. Lessig says, “We are standing in the middle of a time when great injustice is not touched. Architects of the financial meltdown have dinner with the president regularly. In the middle of that time, the idea that this is what the government had to prosecute, just seems absurd, if it weren’t tragic.”
While one can’t help but wonder what Swartz would have accomplished, it is a futile exercise. Instead, we can look to the legacy he has left. Not only are there key web tools like RSS and Creative Commons, but there’s the more abstract ideas that he lived by: a fervent belief that knowledge should be open and that every person can bring change. In fact, at the film’s end is the story of Jack Andraka, a 14-year old student who used free journal articles to develop a test for pancreatic cancer and noted the importance of Swartz’s work. Activist and author Cory Doctorow commented, “Without access, the person who might come up with the thing that’s got your number on it, may never find that answer.” Additionally, Aaron’s Law is a bill that has been introduced which would reform the outdated Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.