Aaron Swartz, Programming Prodigy and Internet Activist

The internet’s own boy.

The biographical documentary The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz was my first introduction to the life of Aaron Swartz, the computer programming prodigy and online political activist. In the film, figures from Aaron’s life including his family, friends and former girlfriends describe his deep interest in the world of computers and the internet since he was a young boy, his contributions to the developments of different online organizations and tools, and his political activism for open access to the world’s scientific and cultural information. This last part, the political activism, is what led to Aaron taking his life at the age of 26, when he was two-years deep into a legal battle that many view as unjust.

It was difficult for me to not have an emotional response to the documentary when I saw clips of home movies that showed Aaron displaying his love for computers and playing with his brothers as a child, and interviews from people who had known, loved, and supported him throughout his life. My perception of Aaron after watching this film is that he was an expert who left his mark all over the internet, on tools such as RSS, organizations such as Creative Commons, and websites such as Reddit. Aaron wanted to do good for the world. He was an extremely talented programmer, and as a young man he could have held a profitable job at a large company. However, he found that his real goal was to be able to use his skills to fight for causes such as the freedom of information on the internet.

“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.”

In 2008, Aaron published the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which opened with the words “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” As someone who had always been passionate about learning, Aaron understood the value of information, and was disturbed by the fact that most of the world’s knowledge was unavailable to significant portions of the population because it was locked up by a few private corporations. Additionally, even the United States government was charging people money to access public documents from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database.

Learning about injustices such as this made me empathize with Aaron and his supporters. I was surprised to learn about how much of society’s access to information is controlled by the government and by for-profit entities. And when the documentary mentioned that Aaron influenced 15-year-old Jack Andraka’s invention of a “revolutionary cancer test,” I was excited to see an example of his efforts helping someone make a great difference in the world.

“Aaron Swartz” by favina is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I’m not sure if I can agree with Aaron’s decision to download millions of documents from the JSTOR database, which is what led to his indictment. However, I do think that the severity of the charges pressed against him do not seem to match his crime. Aaron accessed the database through MIT’s “open campus”, and when JSTOR confronted him, he returned the documents and ensured that none of them would be copied or distributed. I was shocked that even though JSTOR did not attempt to pursue further action, the United States government tried to make an example of out of this “hacker” by pressing charges that, if Aaron was found guilty, could have resulted in a “sentence [that] could conceivably total 50+ years and [a] fine in the area of $4 million.”

Based on what the documentary shares about Aaron’s interests and accomplishments, I believe that his goal when downloading the JSTOR documents was not to personally benefit himself by distributing them for a profit, but to send a message about the importance of open access to knowledge. Aaron seemed to truly be concerned with making the world a better place by allowing people of all types to learn more from the works of those who came before them. It’s saddening that his efforts led him to a state that no one should ever be in — one in which he felt he had no better option than to end his own life.