It’s been said that the Internet both defined and was defined by Aaron Swartz. He co-founded Reddit and co-invented RSS, but it was his fight for free speech and open access to information that was both his legacy and his downfall.
Swartz used Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computers to hack into JSTOR, the academic database. He copied 4.8 million articles and uploaded them for public access to protest the commercialization of information on the Internet. He was arrested for wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and, after a two-year legal battle and facing up to 35 years in prison, Swartz hanged himself at the age of 26.
Brian Knappenberger’s film “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is a personal view into who Swartz was, how much he accomplished, and what led to his choice to end his life. The film also shows how society will suffer if we ignore the relationship between our technological landscape and our civil liberties.
Knappenberger has created many documentaries, commercials and feature films, and is executive producer of the 23-part Bloomberg series “Bloomberg Game Changers” which chronicles figures like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and the Twitter and Google co-founders. His films have explored the changing politics and tensions in the post-9/11 era.
The Forward caught up with Knappenberger to talk about “hacktivism,” Edward Snowden and Net Neutrality.
Dorri Olds: What scenes did you really like but had to cut from the film?
Brian Knappenberger: Aaron’s life was so full we could’ve drilled down on any number of things, but we chose to focus on the lawsuit and big picture. I would’ve loved to focus even more on the criminal justice system. I could make a whole film about the systemic problems in our current criminal justice system.
How is Aaron’s family coping?
In the film, made less than a year since his suicide, they were understandably somewhat guarded. They had a combination of enormous pain and a desire to honor their son’s legacy. The film premiered at Sundance near the one-year anniversary of Aaron’s death. The family was very supportive of me and I couldn’t have made the film without them.
Why did MIT handle the hacking case the way they did?
There is a contradiction between MIT’s tradition of celebrating free thinkers and the way MIT behaved in Aaron’s case. MIT said they were neutral but “neutral” really helped the prosecutors. They shared information with the prosecution that they didn’t share with the defense. They failed miserably at showing leadership in policy-setting in the technological world. MIT has always encouraged pushing boundaries. The MIT media lab has been built on the idea that technology can disrupt the status quo in a positive way and they’ve encouraged experimentation. They even have a scavenger hunt where students have to get into different servers. Aaron was doing something similar when he got into JSTOR and took data.
How did Aaron co-create RSS?
A group of techies came up with RSS feeds and how they would work. At the age of 14, Aaron was a very vocal contributing member of that group. Everybody was shocked because he was so young. RSS is about syndicating articles. For example, a blog may draw headlines from multiple sources and accumulate them and bring them all together in one place. Aggregated from The New York Times, or Mashable, or wherever. They all have their RSS feeds sending you stories automatically. It’s like Twitter but you are pulling in stories from websites you’ve chosen.
What do you hope the takeaway is from your film?
Hopefully there will be outrage at the systems that caused this, and motivation to fight for what’s right. Aaron put his skills into the service of social good. Why not consider putting your skills into the good of the public interest? If you can use your skills and make lives better for people, why wouldn’t you do that? Why would you opt out of doing that?
Was your film, “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists” a precursor to this movie?
Yes. It was a different film for a different time. In 2011 there was hacktivist activity the likes of which the world had never seen. Angered by copyright abuse and other issues, a group named “Anonymous” hit corporate targets. They shut down MasterCard, Visa and PayPal after those groups froze financial transactions to Wikileaks. One participant described their protests as “ultra coordinated motherf*ckery.” By the end of that year you had the Occupy movement. Time magazine’s 2011 person of the year was “The Protester.”
Then the pendulum swung way too far in the other direction. It was a dark time where we saw a crackdown. Hacktivists, activists, whistleblowers and even journalists like James Rosen were thrown into jail. Journalists had been spied on and there was the Snowden revelation. “The Internet’s Own Boy” is in the same thematic territory as “We Are Legion.”
Can you describe your company, Luminant Media?
We’re dedicated to stories that are in the public interest. Technology keeps changing but we have traditional notions of civil liberties like free speech and protection against illegal search and seizure that go back to the beginning of our country. It shouldn’t be thrown out just because we’re in the digital age. It’s a rich territory that we need to be talking about. America created the fourth amendment to protect us but the digital age is challenging that.
Do you think 9/11 was the culprit?
Yes, that fueled some of it. Two things happened at the same time. We had an explosion of how we communicate, in which everybody has an online component to every important part of their lives. We all live online and at the same time we had this massive fear. Two parallel things were happening — we were both deeply fearful and growing more connected — and that created a witch’s brew where we’ve given the NSA [National Security Agency] too much power. We have to sober up. The Snowden revelations have shown us that laws have been interpreted to justify conducting massive secret surveillance over American citizens. That is a direct contradiction to the fourth amendment. Searches against American citizens are illegal unless there is due process and a warrant that says there is probable cause. Advocacy groups like Luminant Media want to address security concerns while protecting constitutional human rights.
Can you explain Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality is the notion that the websites you go to should be delivered to you equally fast. Since the beginning of the Internet big companies have wanted to own the Internet and control the flow of information. Net Neutrality is the idea that no telecom company should get in the way of your going to any lawful website. They can’t slow it down, they can’t redirect you, they can’t charge you a toll on the way there. If you have Internet access the flow of information should be neutral.
Telecom companies have always wanted to charge more money than what you already pay per month for Internet access. They’re saying, “We’d like to charge bigger companies to give people quicker access.” So the bigger the company you have, like NBC, the faster access you can get. The Internet would be carved up into two lanes, the fast lane for the rich and slow lane for the rest of us. Which is in direct contradiction to everything we love about the Internet, a level playing field. That’s why we have innovation on the Internet so a little guy can grow big with a good product. Political messages should get to you at the same speed and win on merits, not on speed that was paid for. The current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler is the former head lobbyist of the telecommunication industry. It’s an old story that people from industries are going into regulatory agencies for the industry they used to be employed by. This kind of conflict of interest is particularly acute here, with the FCC now being run by the head lobbyists for the big telecoms. If Wheeler is in charge of the rules they will probably go in favor of his former bosses. It’s hugely destructive for the Internet.
So is the 1% is going to control the Internet?
Yes, fast lanes for the 1% and dirt roads for the rest of us. It’s a fight that needs to happen. The courts have ruled against Net Neutrality but we the public have one more month during the discussion period to voice our concerns to the FCC before the new proposal gets voted on because the FCC still has the power to protect Net Neutrality and keep the web open.