The Internet’s Own Boy (2014)

On January 11, 2013, a 26-year-old computer programmer, hacker and Internet activist named Aaron Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment by his girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. Swartz, who was under indictment by indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer, as well as 13 other felonies tacked on later, had committed suicide. The Internet’s Own Boy, Brian Knappenberger’s newly released documentary, makes it clear just what a travesty the case against Swartz was.

It’s on Youtube in full. See it before your corporate lackey President Barack Obama takes it down.

Knappenberger begins at the beginning, with Swartz’s childhood. He had precious few years as an adult anyway. Swartz, who grew up in an intellectual, upper-middle-class family in suburban Chicago, was a gifted child. He taught himself to read at age three. He designed an early version of Wikipedia when he was 12. He helped design RSS feeds when he was 14. Even before he graduated from high school, he numbered intellectual luminaries like Lawrence Lessig as his close, personal friends.

But it wasn’t his precocious intellectual ability that made Aaron Swartz so valuable to his generation, or so dangerous to the United States government. It was his humanism. By “humanism” I don’t mean “humanitarianism.” I mean “humanism” in the Renaissance sense. Swartz was a gifted hacker and programmer, but he also had a broad, creative, and most importantly of all, politically aware imagination.

In 2008, he downloaded and released 2.7 million federal court documents stored in the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database managed by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. These 2.7 million documents, it must be pointed out, were not private property. They were public property that he been hijacked by private corporations. Swartz liberated them for the public good. Already an effective progressive, political actor at 22, he attracted the attention of the FBI. They surveilled his house. They terrified his older brother. They did everything but indict him. But they were now watching.

To paraphrase Ivan Turgenev, Death looked Aron Swartz in the face that year and took note of him.

Genius computer hackers, quite simply, are not supposed to be progressive humanists. When the Wall Street banker yells “get a job” at the leftist protester, he does so smugly secure in the knowledge that most of the best minds work for him. Filthy lucre has its appeal. But Swartz was not interested in money. He was interested, to use his own phrasing, “in making the world a better place,” in keeping the Internet a free, open, and democratic institution that served the public. His biggest triumph came in 2012, when he lead the successful campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill, at one time all but certain to sail through Congress, that would have effectively put the Internet under the control of corporations like Sony.

That year he also tried to “liberate” the library of academic research at JSTOR, a private corporation contracted by MIT. What did he do? As far as “crimes” go, not much. He hid a laptop in the basement of an MIT building, and wrote a script to download JSTOR’s archives. MIT security, instead of simply confiscating the laptop and kicking Swartz off campus, installed a surveillance camera, and had him arrested when he was finished.

Even though Swartz had not yet distributed the research — he certainly wasn’t going to sell it — he was indicted by Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann, two ambitious prosecutors in Boston. He was offered a plea deal — three years and the loss of his voting rights — but turned it down. Heymann bullied Quinn Norton, Swartz’s girlfriend, into giving a deposition that he planned not only to use the JSTOR archives for his own research, but to distribute them. Should Norton, a college graduate in her mid-30s, have known better? Certainly. But it’s not easy to resist the full power of the state coming down on you in defense of corporate America.

Swartz was punished for not taking the plea deal, but to make an example of him. Like the unseen forces in a Kafka novel, the federal courts piled on the charges, piled them on, and piled them on. Eventually he was facing 45 years in jail and a fine of over a million dollars, effectively a life sentence. Swartz, who was prone to depression, cracked under the pressure, pressure that would have broken a much stronger man than an emotionally vulnerable 26-year-old techie. He never even made it to 27.

This film made me angrier than any film I can remember.

Fuck Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann. May they rot in hell.

An astute observation from the comments: What the government did to him was heinous, and was the white collar equivalent of the fusillade of bullets fired into Sean Bell or Michael Brown.

https://stanleyrogouski.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/the-internets-own-boy-2014/comment-page-1/#comment-244

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5 comments

  1. Middle-aged lawyers with money, resources, family, and generally connections, practically crap their pants over a disciplinary hearing investigation.

    Here was a 26-year old who had an ailing mother, in the workforce for only a few years, facing a torrent of federal indictments: wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer, as well as 13 other felonies tacked on later, all of which could have sent him to prison for much of his life, or ruined his parents financially had they paid for his legal defense fees. Is it any wonder he took his own life?
    What the government did to him was heinous, and was the white collar equivalent of the fusillade of bullets fired into Sean Bell or Michael Brown.

    I doubt that anyone at that age who could withstand having the book thrown at them to the extent it was thrown at Aaron. For his work to liberate PACER and JSTOR records, he is one of my heroes. Ditto for Medline. If you’re sick and want to research your disease or learn about any aspect of medicine, you’ve got to either go to the NY Academy of Medicine, at 102nd & 5th Ave., or have your own access code.

    1. The only thing more I wish the documentary had done was explore how far up above Heymann and Ortiz it went. Was it just these two trying to make a name for themselves? Or was it more? I guess there’s no way of knowing.

      1. I agree, this would be very interesting to know. The only way this would come out would be either in discovery pursuant to a lawsuit, and I don’t think the family has brought any, as aggressive or hyper-aggressive prosecution does not necessarily imply a civil rights violation, or someone’s conscience starts to bother them at some point, and they write their memoirs, or a deep throat decides to spill to the press. Or another way, if the family files an FOIA request.

        1. In some ways I guess it doesn’t matter. I think your comment about Michael Brown was pretty accurate.

          Black men are perceived as a threat *as a class* by the state. So the cops will gun them down and the corporate media will cover for it.

          White men are not perceived as a threat as a class. That’s why I’m in little danger of getting shot by the cops.

          BUT, when an individual white man like Schwartz threatens corporate power IN ANY WAY, he’s immediately destroyed.

          And I guess they went after him because he was a weak link (young and vulnerable) and not like Lessig,an established figure who could be coopted (Lessig supported Obama).

          Chelsea Manning, fwiw, might be a better example to compare him to than Michael Brown though.

  2. […] the recent The Internet’s Own Boy, From the Journals of Jean Seberg is a powerful statement about how the United States destroys […]

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