“We were not the best behaved children. We were always running around causing trouble.” As Noah Swartz recalls growing up in Highland Park with his brothers Ben and Aaron, you see home movie footage of the three boys looking like a lot of other boys, tumbling over each other inside a large cardboard box, running and bumping, awkward and adorable, turning to the camera to shrug and smile. Like a lot of trouble caused by five- and six-year-olds, this trouble is carefree and charming, recorded by an off-screen parent and played back years later, when the context might have turned nostalgic.
This particular trouble has another context too. As Noah shares this memory, early in Brian Knappenberger’s documentary The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, he is, of course, remembering his brother, who famously killed himself in 2013, during an ongoing prosecution by the US Justice Department. That makes the video not only Noah’s personal recollection, but also a bit of public record, evidence that the child Aaron was happy and innocent, a boy like a lot of other boys.
That’s not to say that Aaron was ordinary: his was a special genius and moral intelligence. As a child programming prodigy and internet activist, he sought to make information open and accessible. For Aaron, his brother Ben observes, “Programming was magic,” a way for someone with exceptional skills to “accomplish what normal people can’t.” His work toward that end was tireless, from his contributions to the developments of RSS and Creative Commons (when he was 13 and 14), to Reddit and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, as well as his stunningly successful campaign against SOPA in 2012.
The Internet’s Own Boy, which screened at AFI Docs on 21 June, makes the case that as Aaron determined to use his magic not to make “mountains of money”, but instead to do good in the world, his work became unfathomable and also threatening to assorted institutions.
As a child, Aaron resisted the indoctrinations of thought imposed by traditional education; as he “started questioning things” he started also to imagine alternatives, other ways to learn, to conceive communities, and to improve conditions for those communities. When he decided against working for a corporation and instead to seek out hacktivist enterprises, he made trouble for a range of institutions, academic, corporate, and, at last, the Obama Administration, during its continuing assault on whistleblowers.
While The Internet’s Own Boy uses a conventional talking heads structure to tell Aarons story — his precociousness, his celebrity, his frustrations, and his increasingly vocal politics — that story is increasingly alarming. His relatives and friends, including Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, Gabriella Coleman, and also Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, intercut with archival footage (family photos and videos, internet interviews, amateur footage of Swartz’s galvanizing presentations on auditorium stages), recount his innovations and his vision, as well as the costs he paid.
When Aaron was initially arrested by MIT police on Massachusetts breaking-and-entering charges, the legal focus was on his downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR. Federal prosecutors later charged him with felonies, including 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
These charges and the prosecution, however much they might have had a context in post-9/11 anxieties and the Patriot Act’s excesses, took tolls on Aaron. Even as he expanded his public endeavors (like the fight against SOPA). They also took tolls on the people around him, including Quinn Norton, a writer for Wired and Aaron’s former girlfriend. For all the appreciations of Aaron and condemnations of the overreaching prosecution, Norton’s critique is the most wide-ranging and the most devastating.
Gradually more visibly unnerved in each segment of the interview, she recounts her fears of the FBI during its pursuit of Aaron (and, as agents threatened, her too), her horror at its systemic “gaming”, and her enduring distress. “I hadn’t done anything wrong and everything had gone wrong,” she frets. “I’m still angry, I’m still angry that you can try your best with these people to do the right thing and they will turn it against you… I’m angrier that this is what we as a people think is okay.”
This point, especially, resonates. Certainly, the movie underlines the lasting effects of Aaron’s work and ideals, perhaps especially the efforts by US Representatives Zoe Lofgren and Ron Wyden to fix the legal structures that allowed the Justice Department to pursue Aaron so relentlessly, that is, the out-of-date CFAA. But it also suggests that the case against Aaron, as upsetting and disproportionate as it might have been, was also not extraordinary, but rather, part of a longstanding and ongoing pattern.
David Sirota submits that the Administration, in the midst of Wikileaks and before the NSA revelations, was “sending a particular laser-like message to a group of people the Obama Administration sees as particularly threatening, hackers.” Knowing that this group has “the ability to make trouble for the establishment,” that establishment means to “scare as many of you as possible into not making that trouble.”
Sirota notes too that this is a particular kind of trouble, not the sort of trouble that banks or corporations might make, not the sort of trouble expected by adherents to systems premised on making profits rather than doing good. In this context, the case against Aaron Swartz serves as another sort of example, one that “we as a people think is okay.”