The Arty Semite

Lessons of Aaron Swartz, the 'Internet's Own Boy'

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is likely to accomplish something no politician has been able to do: unite the Tea Party and liberal Democrats.

The documentary, which goes into limited release and video on demand June 27, tells the story of the government’s overzealous prosecution of a bright young man whose only crime was to push for open access on the Internet.

Don’t be embarrassed if you are unfamiliar with Swartz. I didn’t recognize the name, either. Nor did a dozen or so people I asked. Aaron Hillel Swartz (1986-2013) was a genius, a Beethoven of the Internet.

At age 14, he helped develop RSS (Rich Site Summary), which provides updates from selected websites. He worked on the project communally with members of an organization known as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) all of whom assumed he was an adult. They discovered the truth when they invited him to a conference and he replied he wasn’t sure his mother would let him go.

Swartz subsequently became involved in a number of computer initiatives, creating Infogami, which merged with Reddit, which was purchased by Conde Nast and made him extremely wealthy.

He continued to tinker, creating the architecture for openlibrary.org, a website that hopes to devote a web page to every book ever published and already offers free e-access to many of them.

What started Swartz’s problems, however, was his messing with PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records. PACER is a government agency that provided court documents for a small fee (10 cents a page). Swartz believed that public documents should be available for free. He downloaded many of them and made them available for no charge, precipitating an FBI investigation. It was subsequently dropped, since it would be hard to make a case against someone who made public domain documents more readily available to the public.

But now he was on the government’s radar.

His next project concerned JSTOR, a compendium of peer reviewed journals that charged for access. Swartz’s argument was that much of this research was government funded and should be available for everyone, especially scientists in third world nations who cannot afford the journals’ expensive subscription fees.

He was discovered, arrested, and ultimately charged with four federal felony counts. Before going to trial, prosecutors increased that to 13 felonies for which Swartz might serve 35 years in prison and have to pay $1 million in fines.

Certainly, Swartz was guilty of illegally downloading protected material. As a writer who’s had his work used and misused without permission or payment I’m not entirely sympathetic to Swartz.

However, Swartz didn’t rob a bank. He didn’t hurt anyone. And most important, he didn’t do this for profit. As his father said (though not in the film), Swartz was an atheist, but he carried his Jewish roots with him. He believed in tikkun olam. All he wanted to do was make the world a better place.

The government’s actions were excessive, and sadly the proof is in what happened next. Four months after additional charges were filed, it all became too much for Swartz.

He committed suicide, and a bright light, one capable of doing much for society, was snuffed out.

I didn’t know who Aaron Swartz was before I saw this documentary, but I will carry his memory with me. More to the point, I won’t be as blasé as I might have been in post-9/11 America to government overreach.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Film, The Internet's Own Boy, Documentaries, Aaron Swartz

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Yeshiva University's lawyer wanted to know why the dozens of former schoolboys now suing over a sexual abuse cover-up didn't sue decades ago. Read the judge's striking response here.
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.