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.
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.
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.