A new documentary about the life of Aaron Swartz was released in June this year. It recounts the story of one of the most impactful young talents of the Internet age, and the tragic saga of his quest to make the world a better place.
Directed by Brian Knappenberger, the film was funded through Kickstarter and backed by 1,531 supporters who collectively pledged $93,741, surpassing the initial funding goal of $75,000.
Fittingly, it opens with this quote from Henry David Thoreau:
Unjust laws exist;
Shall we be content to obey them,
or shall we endeavor to amend them,
and obey them until we have succeeded,
or shall we transgress them at once?
The film then follows the life of Aaron Swartz through the prism of his family, friends, and colleages. Starting from an early age, when his father introduced him to the Apple II computer when he was three years old, and when his mother discovered he had taught himself how to read. Through his formative years and achievements, finally to his death on January 11, 2013.
"He was a prodigy, although he never thought of himself as such." —Lawrence Lessig.
Notable events in Aaron's life
When Aaron was twelve, he created a website called TheInfo.org, a knowledge-sharing site, open for anyone to edit; it was essentially an early precursor of the Wikipedia. This site won a school competition held by ArsDigita. Then, not yet a teenager, Aaron got involved in the development of RSS. In the film, Cory Doctorow tells the story of how after participating in the design discussions of RSS for a year, Aaron was invited to attend an in-person meeting. But, he declined, saying: "I don’t think my mom will not let me, I just turned fourteen."
Unhindered by his age, Aaron worked shoulder to shoulder with luminaries of the Internet.
I first met him over IRC.
He didn’t just write code,
he also got people excited about solving problems,
he was a connector.
The free culture movement has a lot of his energy.
I think Aaron was trying to make the world work;
he was trying to fix it. —Tim Berners-Lee
Then, by exploring the history of education, that knowledge became a vehicle for Aaron's coming of age. He was quite interested in copyright and how it obstructed the free sharing of knowledge in the digital age.
I started reading books about the history of education,
and how this education system was developed, [...]
and this led me down this path of questioning things,
and once I questioned the school,
I questioned the society that built the school,
I questioned the business that the school was training people for,
I questioned the government that set up this whole structure. —Aaron Swartz
At 15 years old, he flew from Chicago to Washington, to attended the Supreme Court hearing on the challenge that Lawrence Lessig brought on behalf of Eldred against the Copyright Extension act of 1998 (also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act). When the challenge failed in the Supreme Court, and Lessig conceived of Creative Commons as the next line of defense for the open sharing of knowledge and information, Aaron became enthusiastically engaged and began designing the computer representation of the CC licenses to ensure that they were machine readable to enable automation as well as easily understandable by humans, to facilitate sharing. This led to the CC license chooser that we enjoy today.
Aaron's work and life began to become a balancing act between social engagement and information sharing. He created the accountability project, Watchdog.net, and the Open Library project, a site with a wiki page for every written book.
I feel very strongly,
that is not enough to live in the world as it is.
Take what you are given and follow the things that adults told you to do,
and your parents told you to do,
and society told you to do.
I think you should always be questioning,
I take this very scientific attitude that everything you learn is just provisional.
It is always open to recantation, or refutation, or questioning.
and I think the same applies to society.
once I could see that there were fundamental problems
that I could do something to address,
I didn’t see a way to forget that,
I didn’t see a way not to. —Aaron Swartz
This commitment led Aaron to collaborate with Stephen Shultze, a former fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet in Society at Harvard, and Carl Malamud, a Public Domain advocate, on taking action to raise awareness about the obstructions that the PACER site put on the open dissemination of U.S. court records. These are documents that are not only in the Public Domain but that constitute the corpus of legal precedents in the United States. During a conference, Aaron worked with others on improving code initially developed by Shultze and downloaded 2.7 million records from the PACER site. This attracted the attention of the FBI, who did not pursue legal action because the documents belonged in the Public Domain.
Aaron was intrumental in facilitating the grassroots movement that led to stoping the SOPA and PIPA bills in U.S. Congress, saving the Internet from crippling restrictions intended to protect the interests of publishers at the cost of breaking the architecture of the web. His passion for the open sharing of knowledge led him to the Open Access movement, specifically the large amount of scientific articles that are kept behind paywalls by publishers despite the fact that the large majority of the work done to procur findings is paid for with public funds. Note: The authors transfer copyright for free to the publishers, and the reviewers work for free as volunteers.
Then Aaron's legal troubles began in earnest. On January 6, 2011, Aaron was arrested by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) police on state charges of breaking-and-entering, after he systematically downloaded academic journal articles from JSTOR. Federal prosecutors later charged him with two counts of wire fraud and 11 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.
The charges were considered by many to be out of proportion, especially considering that JSTOR decided not to press charges. Then, after defending himself for over two years, Aaron committed suicide on January 11, 2013.
One of his last commits in GitHub was on the victorykit project, a free and open source platform to run campaigns for social change. And, on August 3, 2013, Aaron was posthumously inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame.
The documentary is free and available to watch on YouTube. Lasting 1 hour and 45 minutes, the film does a masterful job of following the events of Aaron Swartz's life and their context. His is a story that must be known, and must be told, by all of us who live in the digital age.