Aaron Swartz: The painful saga of a rebel genius

A new documentary asks whether the legendary coder-turned-activist was the target of political persecution

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 28, 2014 3:18PM (EST)

Aaron Swartz   (Reuters/Noah Berger)
Aaron Swartz (Reuters/Noah Berger)

In perhaps the most painful moment in Brian Knappenberger’s Kickstarter-funded documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” — and this is a movie with lots of painful moments — freelance writer Quinn Norton struggles to explain how and why she wound up talking to federal prosecutors about Swartz, the technology wunderkind turned organizer and political activist who was also her ex-boyfriend. Norton’s role in the government’s persecution and prosecution of Swartz, which ended when he took his own life in his Brooklyn apartment just over a year ago, has been much discussed by those who have followed this tragic story, and it’s clear she feels torn up about it.

Knappenberger presents Norton’s plight with considerable sympathy: She was a single mom, threatened with the loss of her child and her livelihood. Prosecutors offered her immunity for information about Swartz, and her lawyer told her to take it. Swartz’s attorney says he doesn’t think Norton told the feds anything that made Swartz’s legal predicament worse, although that remains a bone of contention. Norton herself does not agree; she says she alerted the authorities to the existence of Swartz’s 2008 “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” a document calling for the downloading and public sharing of secret databases and scientific journals. This drove the government's theory about what lay behind the minor offenses for which Swartz was arrested, and created the backbone for his multiple felony indictments.

But the main emotion Norton expresses, in a flash of rage, is entirely appropriate: How did we get here? How did we wind up with a country where an anarcho-libertarian information activist is prosecuted like a major criminal for downloading articles from a database for unknown but certainly noncommercial purposes — an action that was barely illegal, and a case the database’s proprietor urged the government to drop — while no one goes to prison for the immense financial fraud of 2008 that bankrupted millions? We’re not going to settle the complicated questions about copyright and the bureaucratic or institutional control of information in a movie review, but even if you think what Swartz did was wrong, that’s just offensive and stupid. Norton says she told her interviewers at one point that they were on the wrong side of history. They didn’t become angry or antagonistic, she says. “They just acted bored.”

I don’t know whether Aaron Swartz was specifically targeted as an enemy of the state or was a victim, so to speak, of institutional boredom, of a mindless prosecutorial machine seeking to justify its own existence. Both seem possible, and they aren’t necessarily incompatible. “The Internet’s Own Boy” was the last movie I saw at Sundance this year and might have the biggest social impact of anything in the festival. It isn’t great cinema, but it’s capable and gripping advocacy filmmaking that took less than a year, start to finish, and will introduce a much wider audience to the issues behind the life and death of Aaron Swartz. (David Sirota, who has written for Salon, was involved in making the film, and appears as a talking head.)

Knappenberger makes clear that Swartz, who had emerged as a preteen programming prodigy with a deep understanding of the Internet’s underlying architecture, had in adulthood turned away from the entrepreneurial, money-crazed, private-sector fanboy culture of the Web. He began to embrace a more radical understanding of freedom and equality in the digital age, and began to see political power, in effect, as another system of control that could be hacked, subverted and turned to unintended purposes. In the late 2000s, Swartz moved rapidly through a variety of politically minded ventures, including a good-government site and several different advocacy groups. He helped pry millions of court documents out from behind the government’s dubious or illegal paywall, revealing numerous privacy violations, and while he didn’t live to learn about Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, he spoke out on many occasions about the hidden and dangerous nature of the security state. Swartz played an instrumental role in the 2011-12 campaign to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act, a far-reaching government-oversight bill that was supported by both parties and initially appeared certain to pass the House and Senate. That campaign, and especially the now-legendary, Internet-wide protest of American Censorship Day in November 2011, looks in retrospect like the digital world’s political coming of age.

Earlier that year, Swartz had been arrested by MIT police and a U.S. Secret Service officer for downloading a large volume of journal articles through a laptop computer plugged into a network switch in a campus wiring closet. No doubt he was breaking some rules, and MIT hadn't imagined a single user downloading its entire archive, but as the New York Times observed at the time, the arrest and subsequent indictment seemed to defy logic: Could downloading articles that he was legally entitled to read for free (as a Harvard grad student) really be considered hacking? The whole incident seemed like a momentary blip in his blossoming career – a terms-of-service violation that might lead to campus discipline, or at worst a misdemeanor conviction for trespassing.

Instead, for reasons that still do not seem clear, Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann threw the book at Swartz, and pretty much wrote the book they were throwing at him. Eventually they came up with an imaginative list of 13 felony indictments that carried a potential total of 50 years in federal prison. Apparently they offered Swartz’s lawyers a plea deal and a six-month sentence, but even that was a ridiculously onerous sentence for such a minor and victimless offense. Furthermore, it would have marked Swartz for life as a convicted felon, unable to vote or run for office in many jurisdictions, and would effectively have ended any chance of a future career in politics. That’s one reason why we can't entirely reject the notion that Swartz was targeted as a political enemy by the Justice Department or the Obama administration. Young computer geniuses who launch start-ups and try to make millions are beloved; those who use technology to challenge state power and open up the flow of information must be crushed.

Perhaps because Knappenberger made his film with the close cooperation of Swartz’s family, he doesn’t go into any detail about Swartz’s suicide – although he did make clear, after the Sundance screening I attended, that Swartz’s father’s famous remark that the government killed his son was not meant literally. Apparently Swartz was pushed to a psychological breaking point and hadn’t asked for help – at least not often enough or not in the right way -- and I’m sure everyone around him will be haunted for the rest of their lives by the possibility that they could have done more. To lose such a brilliant person so young is a dreadful loss, and while his example has clearly inspired many others that obviously can’t salve the pain. Watching this film I felt ashamed that all of us – the media caste, the political chatterers, the people who allegedly care about the issues Swartz took seriously -- didn’t do more. We could have embraced the cause of this charismatic rebel genius who defied all the stereotypes about Internet-obsessed young people, we could have fought against his ludicrous prosecution fight, we could have tried to let him know it was going to be OK (even if that wasn’t true). But nobody did enough and Aaron Swartz got bulldozed by people who were on the wrong side of history and bored about it.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Aaron Swartz Documentaries Movies Sundance 2014 Sundance Film Festival The Internet's Own Boy