Aaron Swartz was a revolutionary.
The name might ring a bell if you’re at all interested in the Internet rights debate, or even if, like me, you’re a redditor who remembers where you were the day he died.
The prodigal computer programmer was arrested in 2011 for downloading millions of journals from the digital library JSTOR with the intention of making them publicly available online. Only one of his many attempts to liberate exclusive content on the web, the punishment for Swartz’s crime was up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. He was being made an example of.
Two years later, Swartz suddenly took his own life, having fought tirelessly to meet the standards of civil liberties he found absolute: public access to the vast arsenal of information on the Internet. Now, in what acts as both a detailed obituary and a call to action, documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger (We Are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists) continues Swartz’s fight in his latest film, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. In the provocative documentary, Knappenberger examines Swartz's work, politics, and contributions to the progress of Internet activism, as well as the looming question of the digital age, "Who does the Internet belong to?"
With detailed accounts of Swartz’s struggles and triumphs, in addition to photos and surveillance footage of the act that led to his arrest, The Internet’s Own Boy challenges viewers to look at life in the digital age with the conscious awareness of being held responsible for the Internet’s protection, as well as the preservation of Swartz’s legacy and the continuance of his fight for public access to information.
Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? —Henry David Thoreau
The film opens with a chillingly relevant quote by Henry David Thoreau that offers perspective on what Swartz stood for: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”
In a series of talking head appearances from politicians, family members, and important Internet figures such as Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, Thoreau’s hypothetical is explored throughout the film, and the viewer is met with the same ethical dilemma that led to Swartz’s demise.
In a much broader sense, Swartz represented a generation of technical savants who finally have the power to make a positive shift in the dynamics between governments, corporations, and everyone else. Aside from co-authoring RSS 1.0 at age 14, Swartz was an early architect of the open access organization Creative Commons. In fact, without Aaron Swartz, it’s difficult to tell where the Internet—and the state of the digital rights debate—would be today. But his struggle continues and obstacles still stand.
Swartz’s influence can be seen in almost every corner of the Internet today. Most prominently for the average Internet consumer, however, it can be seen on Reddit, the self-proclaimed "front page of the Internet." Redditors, affectionately-named active members of the online community, are notorious for planting the seeds of viral web content. Swartz, a co-founder of Reddit, was seen as a warrior, an Internet martyr, and anything he said was met with praise by its users.
As a journalism student in a game-changing era where new media had begun to swallow traditional methods of mass communication whole, I was a relatively late newcomer to Reddit when Swartz was arrested. Smartphones were finally accessible to almost everyone and tablets were gaining popularity fast. The world’s catalog of information was truly at our fingertips.
We were—and still are—obsessed with social media, constantly checking in on Facebook and Twitter, browsing the web for the latest news, spending hours on Reddit, forgoing our responsibilities to pay attention in core science classes for the satisfaction of knowing which cat videos made it to the front page. It was a new age characterized by blurred lines between leisure, education, and business, and for me, Reddit tied them all together.
At the time, however, a monumental debacle was brewing that exacerbated the struggle between government and civilian Internet consumers. In the two years between Swartz’s arrest and his death, he became a voice against certain legislation like PIPA (the Protect IP Act) and SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), both of which threatened free speech and innovation on the digital front, and in a single day of action, Reddit, along with major sites like Wikipedia and Craigslist, orchestrated a blackout which was hailed by many as the defeating blow to those bills.
Even today, the fight for a free and open Internet in the United States continues, with Swartz’s legacy seen in almost every action against those who seek to gain exclusive control over data. More recently, legislative threats to net neutrality (the standard that all data on the Internet should be treated equally) beckoned memories of Swartz’ battles, and in August 2013, he was posthumously inducted into the Internet hall of fame.
Choosing the latter of Thoreau’s hypothetical options, Swartz died fighting in defense of transgressing those unjust laws. If Swartz was "the Internet’s own boy," then we—his peers, fellow redditors, and future revolutionaries—are the Internet’s children, tasked with the option to obey or continue to transgress in the footsteps of our brother.
The Internet’s Own Boy is slated for theatrical and On-Demand release June 27.
Ramy Zabarah is a contributing writer. He tweets here.