Wednesday February 04, 2015
Movie Review: The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014)
“The Internet’s Own Boy” has the advantage of a good title and a great subject.
Aaron Swartz (no “ch”?) was born in 1986 and was 10 when the Internet took off; as a prodigy, he took off with it. He co-founded Reddit, helped develop RSS, founded Demand Progress. By the time he was 15 he counted among his friends Lawrence Lessig, Harvard professor and social activist, and Timothy Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web. He was part of the open source movement and helped stop SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” which could have shut down websites charged with copyright infringement and thus had a chilling effect on the Internet as we know it. In 2008, he downloaded millions of court documents from PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), which charges 8 cents per page, but ultimately wasn’t charged himself, since the documents were supposed to be free. In 2010, he did the same with academic journals from JSTOR, a digital repository, via an unguarded network switch at MIT. That act was more problematic. He was charged and indicted on wire fraud and computer fraud, among the 13 charges eventually leveled against him. After plea deals fell through, he took his life on Jan. 11, 2013. He was 26.
The doc is a good primer on who Swartz was and what he stood for, but it fails for me in its final third because of one word:
That word keeps getting tossed around—in the “... so the government cracked down on Swartz” sense—but its meaning is vague. Are we talking about: 1) Stephen Heymann, assistant U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, who was apparently interested in a career-making case against Swartz; 2) various fed departments, such as Homeland Security, which were determined to make an example of Swartz, a benevolent figure, in its losing battle against digital terrorism; 3) corporate-governmental collusion, which didn’t appreciate Swartz’s SOPA work; or 4) Pres. Obama himself, whose administration has looked less kindly upon whistleblowers than even the Bush administration?
All of the above are either said or implied. Mostly implied. There’s no attempt to parse out who exactly is doing or saying what. It’s sloppy work. Talking head and Salon columnist David Sirota implicates Pres. Obama, but shortly after the Obama administration stands with Swartz against SOPA; dramatically, it makes little sense.
I actually found myself wanting to engage with the people on the screen, or at least writer-director Ben Knappenberger (“We Are Legion”), over both hacktivism and the open source movement. A wide-open Internet is all well and good for those who can write code, and make a million dollars off of sites like Reddit, as Swartz did. At the same time, entire professions are being wiped out via digitization and the “free” exchange of ideas. At least be aware that this is happening.
I also don’t get hacktivists who are shocked, shocked when their hacking inspires fear and retribution. For most people, they are wizards. Whether they are good or bad wizards is irrelevant to those who don’t have the power, and who suddenly feel very, very vulnerable.
Again, “The Internet’s Own Boy” is a good title and a not-bad primer. I just wanted less romanticization of hactivism, and less demonization (or at least more clarification) of something called “government,” which, after all, started the internet in the first place.