The Tragic Story of Hacktivist Aaron Swartz

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A movie poster for the film "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz."

Aaron Swartz is remembered as many things. An early partner and creator of Reddit, a self-made millionaire by the age of 19, and a hacktivist who ushered in a huge wave of opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

But beyond his public persona, he was a young man who truly believed he could change the course of the internet—and the world—for good.

In the fall of 2010, Swartz downloaded 4.8 million academic articles and documents from JSTOR through MIT's computer network. Over the next few months, Swartz was indicted by a federal grand jury, and eventually charged by federal prosecutors on more than a dozen total charges, facing a prison sentence of up to 50 years plus $1 million in fines.

Though a plea deal was offered, according to Swartz's then-girlfriend Quinn Norton, it was a deal he could not accept because he did not want to live life as a felon.

Eventually, Swartz took his own life, sending shockwaves throughout the hacking and internet communities.

The story of Aaron Swartz is one of the fight for a free internet, and the complicated and tangled relationship between hackers and the government. It's told in the new documentary: "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz." Brian Knappenberger, director of the film, joins The Takeaway today.

"Right after he passed, there was this big wave of anger, frustration, and sympathy that came even from people that didn't know him," says Knappenberger. "I think that the reason for that is he did sort of symbolize a kind of choice."

Knappenberger says that after Reddit was sold to Condé Nast, Swartz and his other colleagues became very wealthy, but Swartz chose to diverge from the common path that many young tech moguls take.

"That sale made him a really rich 19 year old," says Knappenberger. "Instead of staying on that Silicon Valley start-up treadmill—in other words, doing what most people do of just doing it again, building a flip, finding another business and selling it to a big corporation again—he took a pretty decisive turn towards social justice issues."

Knappenberger says that Swartz felt it was wrong to lock publicly-funded academic research away behind high-priced paywalls. He wanted to set the information free, and found a way to do it.

"Aaron, to me, seemed like he wanted to work very much within the system—he wanted to sort of 'hack' it in the best possible sense, understanding that social systems can be changed and altered," he says. "A felony really takes you out of that system. I mean, you can't even vote in some states if you're a felon. And that was the one thing prosecutors were never going to budge on—they wanted him to be a felon."

For Swartz, having a felony was such a grave designation because it meant it would be much harder for him to challenge lawmakers when it came to things like SOPA and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Swartz and other online activists denounced the bills and helped to successfully stop them from becoming law.

"He had this ability to explain these complex issues to people in ways that they found relevant to their lives," says Knappenberger. "He was able to take the message of SOPA and really explain it in ways that got people motivated and made them understand that this was going to be damaging to this thing that they love—the openness of the internet."

Supporters of SOPA and PIPA claimed that the bills targeted "rogue" foreign websites that encourage online infringement. Those like Swartz who opposed the the bills—including major internet players like Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, Craigslist and others—argued that these legislative measures contained vague language that would create a devastating new tool for silencing legitimate speech all around the web.

Initially, hundreds of lawmakers in Congress supported the bill, and the legislation was on the fast track to becoming law. That is until Swartz led the charge against the bill and sparked a huge online protest.

"It culminated in a black out day, where a lot of people actually blacked out their websites," says Knappenberger. "You just saw Congress folks fleeing from this, just jumping ship, and it was dead within a period of about 48 hours. This is how democracy should work in the digital age—it was kind of a shining example."

In the midst of the SOPA victory, however, Swartz was still wrestling with his prosecution.

"Once the prosecution starts, it's just this machine that can't be turned around again," says Knappenberger. "The prosecutor keeps ramping up charges against him. He's initially charged with four felony counts, and later he's given a superseding indictment that ups that to 13. Eleven of the 13 are the result of this wildly outdated law called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is a computer law that hasn't really had any meaningful changes since 1986. It was created after the movie 'WarGames' with Matthew Broderick."

In the end, Knappenberger says that Swartz ran out of options when it came to plea deals—something that pushed him over the edge.

"He ends up taking his own life, actually within a few days of the two year anniversary of his initial arrest," he says.

Guests:

Brian Knappenberger

Editors:

T.J. Raphael

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