He lived and died for freedom of information
THE INTERNET’S OWN BOY: THE STORY OF AARON SWARTZ (12)
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.