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.
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.