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!
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • The Cossacks were a feature in every European Jewish kid's worst nightmare. Tuvia Tenenbom went looking for the real-life variety in Ukraine — but you won't believe what he found. http://forward.com/articles/202181/my-hunt-for-the-cossacks-in-ukraine/?
  • French Jews were stunned when an anti-Israel mob besieged a synagogue outside Paris. What happened next could be a historic turning point.
  • 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.