When Stewart Brand coined the iconic slogan of the Digital Age – "Information wants to be free" – he probably didn't envision how far the powers that be might go to keep information trapped between a firewall of lies, disinformation, and threats.
Brian Knappenberger's new documentary, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, provides a chilling example of how federal judicial overreach could and did end up with one young Internet idealist driven to the ultimate extreme while being hounded and pursued by the U.S. government. That would be Aaron Swartz, the Web-savvy genius behind Reddit, Infogami, Jottit, and dozens of other Internet-centric projects, who committed suicide Jan. 11, 2013, at the age of 26, after being charged with multiple counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the archaic Computer Fraud and Abuse Act after he downloaded hundreds of digitized academic journals, via MIT's servers, that had been posted by JSTOR, a digital library containing countless journal articles that, by all rights, should probably have been freely available to the public in the first place.
The Austin Chronicle spoke with Knappenberger by phone to discuss Swartz, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and the chilling effect of corporate power and an ill-informed government on the entire notion of freedom of information in an increasingly digitally complex society.
Austin Chronicle: What was it that first drew you to Aaron Swartz's story?
Brian Knappenberger: As a documentary filmmaker, you often look for small stories that have bigger meanings. One of the things that I found so fascinating about Aaron's story was, first of all, the number of accomplishments in a 26-year-old life. It's really remarkable. His early skills that let him put a lot of his fingerprints all over the Internet, along with his choice, his drive, and his move more into a kind of social justice realm after Reddit, and the things that happened to him, such as the government going after him and the obvious prosecutorial overreach: That all said a lot about our personal relationship with technology and the broken aspects of our Department of Justice. And there's no question that our criminal justice system is broken.
AC: Do you see that broken system changing anytime soon?
BK: My preferred choice of change is to tell stories about it and to try to get people to understand the problem in ways that are personal, moving, and compelling. I hope there's room for change. Our criminal justice system is not what people think it is. We've given huge power to prosecutors and taken power out of the hands of judges, essentially.
AC: Do you think it's appropriate to call Aaron Swartz a martyr for the Internet, Net neutrality, and other related digital issues of the day?
BK: Well, he has become that, but I resist that as a word. Reading through his blogs and his Twitter as far back as I could get, he didn't see himself as special, really. Which is actually not true. He was a unique individual, right? He had certain skills that not everybody has. But that's certainly not how he saw it, and I think it diminishes a little bit to make him special. One of the things he said in his blog was that his opinion of intelligence was simply being curious, and I think that's true. Everybody has access to the kinds of tools that he had, and can do the kinds of things that he did. It's not that he was a prodigy or a genius; it's that he was curious and that he cared and that he was tenacious. He turned all of his talents, time, and energy to trying to fix the things that he thought were problems. And of course we can all do that.
AC: Was there anything you came across during the course of making this documentary that came as a surprise?
BK: Two things surprised me. The first was the number of things that he was involved with. We list them in the film ... and there are so many you can't even read them all, and you're not meant to, really. It's meant to show them all in one long list. The other thing that surprised me was the amount of time he spent talking about the NSA and its overreach. It's tough to remember a time now, after the Snowden revelations, when we didn't know about [NSA overreach]. Aaron was talking about it a full year before it became public knowledge. Those of us in and around the hacker community knew that there was something going on that was far beyond what we expected or was generally believed to be the case. He was incredibly articulate about it and very concerned about it early on. And he wrote about it and spoke out about it.
AC: The more information that arrives to the public via, for instance, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Anonymous, et al., points to a huge disconnect between the government and digital reality.
BK: Yes, they're just not ready for the Digital Age. There's going to be a time when we have to sit back and ask ourselves, "What are traditional values, and what do we care about in terms of civil liberties?" The Fourth Amendment that protects us against illegal searches and seizures has served us pretty well since our country's inception. It not time to throw that out just because we're in the Digital Age.
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