the internets own boy

The Internet’s Own Boy

Brian Knappenberger’s documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy, did for Aaron Swartz what Asif Kapadia’s Amy did for Amy Winehouse, remind us what a terrible loss both of them were. If your under the age of 40, I would expect you to know the name Amy Winehouse. However, unless you’re a hacker or media nerd, I wouldn’t expect you to know the name Aaron Swartz.

Aaron Swartz helped shape the way Web 2.0 works, along with developing the RSS feed, being one of the founders of Reddit and helping create what we now call the Creative Commons. He founded the digital activist group Demand Progress, which helped defeat SOPA.

Oh yeah, he also got arrested and was pretty much steamrolled by the American legal system until he was broke, financially and emotionally.  

According to Wikipedia:

On January 6, 2011, Swartz was arrested by MIT police on state breaking-and-entering charges, after connecting a computer to the MIT network in an unmarked and unlocked closet, and setting it to systematically download academic journal articles from JSTOR using a guest user account issued to him by MIT. Federal prosecutors later charged him with two counts of wire fraud and eleven violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act,carrying a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fines, 35 years in prison, asset forfeiture, restitution, and supervised release.


This wasn’t the first time Swartz broke into a digital warehouse.

In 2008, Swartz downloaded 441,170 law review articles from the legal research service Westlaw. Swartz was looking for a link between corporations paying for specific research and writing academic articles that favored corporate interests. Swartz published his findings in a 2010 article in the Stanford Law Review (this link I got here but it links to an article from 2008 and Swartz’s name doesn’t appear to be in it).

This shouldn’t come as any great shock, there is a corporate influence in academic journals. From today’s NYTimes “Coca-Cola’s top scientist is stepping down after revelations that the beverage giant initiated a strategy of funding scientific research that played down the role of Coke products in the spread of obesity.” It is exactly the type of thing Swartz found.

In late 2010, Swartz used MIT’s computer network to download a lot of academic articles from digital repository JSTOR. Typically, academic journals whack the public about $35 an article and Swartz believed that was ridiculous because the public had funded a large share of these academic articles (having been written in academic environments). So while he was systematically downloading from JSTOR (non-profit organization), by all accounts his only intention was to make the journals free online (he even succeeded). 

In a word, that is, illegal.

HOWEVER, one might think it be in lady justice’s best service to consider intent and harm inflicted (in this case, no commercial intent and virtually zero harm done).

If one were to think that, they’d be wrong. 

The government claimed his sole intention was to market or sell the articles and despite protests and pleas to the contrary, they held firm in their resolve. Aaron Swartz was going to be prosecuted.  

Did the punishment fit the crime? Absolutely not. “…a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fines, 35 years in prison, asset forfeiture, restitution, and supervised release.”

Even after JSTOR decided they were not going to pursue litigation against Swartz, the government forged ahead in their efforts. Even former Nixon White House counsel John Dean thought the government were “…overcharging” and the 13-count indictment “overzealous“. The government was hell-bent on making an example of Swartz.

Unable to reach a reasonable plea deal with the prosecution and terribly distraught about the upcoming trial, on January 11, 2013 Aaron Swartz took his own life. 

Swartz casts a long shadow on the Internet, Democracy and transparency.

Remember that 15-year-old kid Jack Andraka? In 2013, he developed a new cancer test that is “cost-effective and less invasive for early-stage pancreatic cancer and a number of other diseases“. 

Turns out Andraka used free reasearch articles he found (like those Swartz was downloading and posting for free), “I used them religiously”. He also believed “The public funds a lot of this research. Shouldn’t the public have access to it?

While I’m no apologist for illegal activities I do applaud the efforts Swartz took on behalf of the American people. In addition to those already mentioned, here’s a list of what he accomplished in his much too short life:

Open Library – Swartz acquired the Library of Congress’s complete bibliographic dataset: the library charged fees to access this, but as a government document, it was not copyright-protected within the USA. By posting the data on OpenLibrary, Swartz made it freely available. The Library of Congress project was met with approval by the Copyright Office. The file became the basis for the Open Library, with Swartz as chief designer.

Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) – He helped defeat SOPA which sought to combat Internet copyright violations and was criticized on the basis that it would have made it easier for the U.S. government to shut down web sites accused of violating copyright and would have placed intolerable burdens on Internet providers.

DeadDrop/SecureDrop – Swartz and Kevin Poulsen designed and implemented DeadDrop, a system that allows anonymous informants to send electronic documents without fear of disclosure. The Freedom of the Press Foundation has since taken over development of the software, which has been renamed SecureDrop. – Swartz founded, “the good government site with teeth,” to aggregate and visualize data about politicians

PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) –  Public.Resource.Org founder Carl Malamud argued that the PACER files should be free and not the .08 per page PACER was charging. Together with Swartz, they brought millions of U.S. District Court records out from behind PACER’s “pay wall” and found them full of privacy violations, including medical records and the names of minor children and confidential informants. (NOTE: PACER still charges per page, but customers using Firefox have the option of saving the documents for free public access with a plug-in called RECAP.)

Aaron’s Law A law introduced by Senator Ron Wyden, and Representative Zoe Lofgren to curb the prosecutorial misuse of the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act); it would ensure that people won’t face criminal liability for violating a terms of service agreement or other solely contractual agreements.

It’s impossible to consider what Swartz may have accomplished had he lived: but in his brief 26 years he has done more than what most people can hope to do in a lifetime. 

The loss of Aaron Swartz leaves an epic void in our digital era much like the loss of Amy Winehouse to music…or John Kennedy Toole to literature or James Dean was to acting, et al.