He lived and died for free­dom of in­for­ma­tion

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -


WH E N I t e l l you that this d o c u m e n - tary is about an Amer­i­can c o m p u t e r p r o g r a m - me r w h o be­lieved the con­tents of public in­ter­est data­bases should be freely avail­able to all, I doubt you will drop ev­ery­thing and rush to see it. But you re­ally should.

One rea­son to do so is be­cause it’s the story of the prover­bial nice Jewish boy — Aaron Swartz — who grew up with his par­ents and two broth­ers in Chicago, ex­celled as a stu­dent and went on to kill him­self. Swartz was that boy ge­nius that you read about, but thanks to a col­lec­tion of home movies, direc­tor Brian Knap­pen­berger lets us see the sub­ject as a three-year-old read­ing flu­ently from a book about Passover. The re­as­sur­ing sight of a happy child­hood cap­tured on cine film is usu­ally an omi­nous sign in cinema and those who al­ready know of Swartz’s fate will take lit­tle com­fort from it. But it does show how ex­cep­tion­ally gifted he was at such a ten­der age and how he went on to be greatly ad­mired for his abil­ity to de­velop and sell ground-break­ing web­sites which made him a mil­lion­aire be­fore he was 21.

If the for­mat RSS or the news site Red­dit mean any­thing to you, you will un­der­stand why, but the praise heaped on him by a se­ries of in­ter­net movers and shak­ers, in­clud­ing World Wide Web in­ven­tor Tim Bern­ers-Lee, is enough to im­press the ill-in­formed.

Swartz wasn’t ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested in money — “he felt pro­gram­ming was magic,” his brother Ben ex­plains. So he fo­cused on do­ing good and ques­tion­ing au­thor­ity. One of his big con­cerns was copy­right and open ac­cess to schol­arly doc­u­ments as he be­lieved all in­for­ma­tion should be free in the dig­i­tal age. The US gov­ern­ment, on the other hand, did not and when he hacked into and down­loaded aca­demic files from a jour­nal stor­age site, it went af­ter him.

The 13 felony charges is­sued were not only dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the crime. It shows gov­ern­ment act­ing like an Or­wellian in­sti­tu­tion that can­not be chal­lenged. Many peo­ple al­ready know that, but watch­ing the tragedy of Aaron Swartz un­fold in this thought­ful and grip­ping doc­u­men­tary is a shock­ing re­minder.

Aaron Swartz

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