The Internet’s Own Boy – A Moving Tribute to a Digital Activist

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You would often hear programming prodigies claiming that their newly developed app is going to ‘make the world a better place’. Although we should commend these geeks’ and prodigies’ entrepreneurial and intellectual skills, we know that apps aren’t just going to make things better; it may give those inventors a better place in the world. But, rarely do we come across a prodigy like ‘Aaron Swartz’ who dropped himself of the money-crazed corporate culture and turned into a activist (or ‘hacktivist’), contending against government and giant corporates, which were determined to control information and invade a individual’s privacy. In January 2013, Aaron Swartz committed suicide (at the age of 26) after being hounded by his own government, which threatened him with serious felony charges.

Brian Knappenberger’s kick stater-funded documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” (2014) passionately portrays the life of this late hacktivist, who understood the power of web as few ever did. Like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Zuckerberg, Swartz was very passionate about technology. At the age of 14, he was a part of a group, which developed the famous digital tool ‘RSS Feed’. At 15, he got involved with ‘Creative Commons’, a non-profit organization committed to a less-restrictive approach on copyright issues. He was one of the co-founders of the popular social sharing service ‘Reddit’. Even at a young age, he started to detest working for a giant corporate and the fan-boy culture of internet. He began to see the inequality in the digital arena and started to fight against the political power that spawns this difference.

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Aaron brought out millions of court documents from the clutches of the government’s dubious paying system that itself violated numerous laws. He was especially bothered by the way the digital libraries charge expensive fees for vital documents like academic papers and journals. As a research fellow at MIT, Aaron had access to digital library JSTOR. He used the mainframe computer at MIT and downloaded a great number of academic articles, intending to upload them into a free file-sharing site. Surely, Aaron has broken some rules set by MIT. At worst, he might have faced misdemeanor charges, but the US Justice Department decided to make a lesson out of him. Boston US Attorney came up with 13 charges of felony that carried a potential of 35 years in federal prison. Later, the so-called victims, JSTOR and MIT refused to file charges against him.

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Although Aaron was shattered by the way government persecuted him, he continued his various political minded ventures. Swartz also played a vital role in the 2011-12 campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). It was a dangerous over-reaching act that challenged American legislation. The march against SOPA was now considered as one of the significant battle against the digital censorship. The rallies and speeches stopped the act from passing in both House and Senate, and this was the most productive period in Swartz’s life as he developed fresh techniques for digital activism. The US government then became more eager to put him in his place, conjuring new felonies under the antique Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (which was said to have created after watching the implausible scenario shown in 1983 movie “War Games”). The outfoxing investigation, prosecution, and Aaron’s own brittle psychological state eventually pushed him to commit suicide (aged 26).

Director Knappenberger interviews a wide range of personalities who are connected with Aaron: friends, family, romantic partners, and a range of activists and digital luminaries. By using the adoring profile of Aaron Swartz, the film-maker effectively calls for action, but also at times uses heavy dramatic flourishes turning the documentary into a hagiography. The director sort of sledgehammers his point and also gets too preachy. Of course, there are many savoring moments like Aaron’s interview, where he describes the duality of internet. On one side it’s a symbol of liberty, giving away loads of information, and on the other hand, it’s destabilizing your privacy and trying to exchange information for load of money. Aaron states that the internet’s both good and evil, and it’s up to us to decide its use.

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The opposite parties declined to be interviewed, and so we don’t see the devil’s advocacy, but rather a reaffirmation of Swartz’s achievements. Knappenberger also goes overboard at times, when he connects Aaron’s brooding prison sentence to America’s wider problem of mass incarceration. But, the documentary also opens our minds and eyes to things we didn’t know happened or happens. Apart from the charged-up rallies against SOPA and PIPA, we also briefly get to know about personalities like Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the ‘web’ and gave it away for free without contriving to make million of dollars out of it. The documentary also brings home the point of how geeks launching start-ups, making millions, are beloved by the elite group, while those who use the same technology to question the state power are crushed.

 “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” (105 minutes) is a morally outraged portrayal against a political machine that has botched notions about public information and privacy.

 

Internet provides everyone with a license to speak. Now it’s a question of who gets heard

– Aaron Swartz

 

  • Ravish Mani

    Didn’t know about him. Thanks for sharing this great info 🙂