The Internet’s Own Boy Reflection
Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? — Henry David Thoreau
We live in an incredibly intricate and complex society. As technology continues to develop, its corresponding impact on the complexity of our societal structure also continues to develop. As a result of this increase in complexity, new laws are written and conscripted into law. As time goes on however, the exponential rate of technological expansion begins to make some of these laws obsolete. Obsolete laws result in obsolete punishments, and this process served as the centrifuge to The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary about the life of Aaron Swartz.
By all accounts in the film, Aaron Swartz was a very bright and an impassioned activist. He recognized from a young age that through computers, and specifically the internet, ordinary people are capable of accomplishing extraordinary things. Swartz realized this opportunity, and dedicated his life to ensuring the increase of access to academic research for all. To accomplish this, Swartz utilized MIT’s internal network to download vast quantities of articles from JSTOR. In the process, Swartz was caught by the FBI and charged on 13 felony counts of the equivalent of cyber terrorism. The majority of these charges were based upon the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a 1986 piece of legislation meant to increase internet security, but has since become archaic and non-reflective of the contemporary vastness of the internet. As a result, Swartz faced over 30 years in jail. As Quinn Norton states in the film:
“He was the Internet’s own boy, and the old world killed him.”
I don’t want to make the claim that what Swartz did was completely just. Part of the reason why the United States has one of the most stable economies in the world is our respect and enforcement of property rights. However, we apply an outdated perspective to the concept of property rights, in particular, piracy. Swartz was not attempting to “steal” these articles for personal gain or enjoyment; he wanted to fulfill his dream outlined in the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto. No logical individual would agree that the punishment that Swartz was facing was truly reflective of the consequences of his actions. And yet, in the eyes of the Federal Government, Swartz’ punishment was just down to the legal code. Swartz took his own life as a result of an archaic law, the CFAA. In a sense, Aaron provided more justice in using his life as a call for help in the reasonable prosecution and interpretation of electronic crime. We should not use Swartz as validation for break the law, rather, as a call to a different kind of action. Archaic laws such as the CFAA need to be rooted out at the source; who they intended to protect have received more harm than benefit. When piracy is so widespread and easily accomplishable by any person, we must enforce a legal code to reflect this, not to punish people for utilizing the manifestation of our technological development that is the internet.