Friday, April 25, 2014

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz


Aaron Swartz wanted to make the world a better place. He applied his astounding technical brilliance to leverage the Internet as a tool to improve the world. And he took his own life as a result of being hounded by aggressive prosecutors over a pretty modest misdemeanour. Such an incredibly sad and powerful story. This was the opening film of Hot Docs and my first film of this year's festival.

Family film footage shows Aaron reading sophisticated books at 3, and the emergence of his ferocious curiosity and propensity for action.  In his 25 years, his technical output was prolific.

At the remarkable age of 15, he was working on the RSS standard, to enable users to receive information from frequently updated web sites. He was a founder of Infogami and later Reddit. When Aaron was still a teenager, his accomplishments came to the attention of Harvard lawyer Lawrence Lessig who invited him to build the technical infrastructure and web site for the Creative Commons copyright system. As Aaron became a social activist, he built an astonishing number of web sites to support the causes he endorsed.

So why did his life end so tragically?Aaron questioned everything, and considered all learning to be temporary and subject to query. You can imagine he was not a great fit for traditional high schools, nor Stanford when he went there. His disenchantment with the education system sparked his questioning of all society. But he was essentially an optimist and believed the world could be fixed if he could just explain the issue and its solution clearly.

He passionately believed that information should be free. He downloaded and released many records from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system, which were restricted behind a highly profitable pay wall (although by law charges should only just cover the cost of operation). This brought him to the attention of the FBI, although after investigation, no charges were laid.

He was instrumental in building powerful opposition to the SOPA law (Stop Online Piracy Act), and ultimately, somewhat to his own amazement, the bill was stopped.

However his treatment was not so benign after he downloaded thousands of documents from the JSTOR repository of academic papers when he was a fellow at MIT. He had not done anything with the documents - like sell them or publish them. It puzzled me why he would be charged with 13 indictments. TV shows train you to believe there has to be a smoking gun - like the drug dealer consummating the sale - in order for charges to be laid.  In the Q&A, the director explained that the charges revolved solely around access.  When JSTOR saw how many documents were being downloaded, they blocked Aaron's access. When he hacked around that, they blocked all of MIT, and Aaron hacked around that again.

There's no firm indication of what Aaron wanted to do with the documents, and JSTOR declined to press charges, but the prosecutor pursued Aaron with a vengeance, with the goal of making an example of him. The initial 4 indictments (which already could lead to 35 years in prison) were later increased to 13. Although his lawyer felt they had a strong case, apparently they were bracing for a sentence of around six years. Being a felon would have dashed Aaron's germinating political ambitions, and six years without a computer was unthinkable.

After suffering two years of intense pressure, and over a million dollars in expenses, Aaron took his own life. And one of the great minds of a generation were lost.

My first film at Hot Docs this year was great. But how could you fail to make a great movie with such a compelling subject?

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