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Director Of ‘Internet’s Own Boy’ On Aaron Swartz, Who Died Fighting For Internet Freedom

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Editor’s Note: Aaron Swartz was not just the co-founder of Reddit, or the inventor of RSS (or Rich Site Summary – a format for delivering regularly changing web content), which he invented at the age of 14. He was the ‘Robin Hood’ of the internet. Years before net-neutrality was an issue in India, and the Government was clamping down on information – Aaron led the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement in the US, mobilising thousands for internet freedom – leading the US Govt to strike down a bill that threatened the very essence of the internet. His movement, in many ways, paved the way for the global advocacy for a free and fair internet. Aaron’s life, however, was cut short at the age of 27 when he committed suicide following his arrest and prosecution for committing a felony. His crime? Making study material available at MIT and JSTOR available to the world for free.

‘The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz’ is an investigative documentary that follows the story of this programming prodigy and the following is an interview with the award-winning director himself, Brian Knappenberger.

This interview was originally published on the DIFF Blog, here

Brian Knappenberger
Brian Knappenberger

What was it about Aaron’s story that inspired you to make this film?

My previous film ‘We Are Legion’ followed hackers and activists, so I was following Aaron’s story right from when he was arrested. He was deeply engaged in many issues involving technology and our civil liberties in the digital age. I was also struck by how much his story resonated with people far beyond the communities in which he was a celebrity. There was a wave of anger and frustration after he died and I found his story a really compelling, personal way to explore some of what I think are the most important issues of our time.

Did you ever meet Aaron?

No, but I was certainly aware of him. I was a friend of Quinn Norton, Aaron’s ex-girlfriend, and I knew a lot of people who knew him. At the time, I was wondering why more people weren’t paying attention to his case and later learned it was because he actively tried to keep it quiet out of fear he would anger the prosecutor. That was tragic, because it increased his isolation.

Why is the topic of Internet activism important enough to you to devote years of your life to it?

I think that the hacking community is engaged in a relentless pursuit of the truth. They seem to have very low tolerance for nonsense or lies. They break these walls of deception. We need the truth, whether that’s the truth of the universe in the form of science, knowledge, and research—the kind of things that Aaron was after—or whether that’s the truth of our relationship with our government. I think that as a human race we are facing big intractable problems that we’ve never faced before, and the only way we solve those problems is to come armed with the truth unsullied by political power and unstained by corporate greed. It’s the only way we make lives better for people around the world. It’s the only way we deal with problems like climate change, and it’s the only way we ultimately figure out how best to govern ourselves.

Why did prosecutors with the Department of Justice pursue his case so aggressively — even after JSTOR dropped the charges?

The prosecutor told Aaron’s father that they wanted to make an example out of Aaron and that they needed a case for deterrence. It really makes you wonder what they were deterring. Are there a lot of people going around downloading articles from JSTOR? What kind of example were they trying to make? And I think the story becomes very dark when one starts to ask those questions. The prosecution clearly got so deep into the case that they couldn’t back out. It really shows a broken criminal justice system and what we lose when we are tone deaf about basic freedoms in the digital age.

How did Aaron’s quest for freedom of information shape the future of the Internet?

Aaron was shaping the Internet from a very young age. He contributed to RSS, the architecture of Creative Commons and was a co-founder of Reddit. His work shaped the Internet free culture movement while he was still a very young person, but ultimately his shift toward political activism took him beyond the world of programmers. That work is especially relevant today as we battle with state surveillance and net neutrality laws. He was way ahead of the game, and he understood that it was more than just coding.

The interview was conducted by Luminant Media.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz will have its India premiere at the Dharamshala International Film Festival on Nov 8 at 5.30 PM.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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