Aaron’s afterlife

By Hamza Shaban , written on July 9, 2014

From The News Desk

When Chelsea Manning released a massive set of confidential material to WikiLeaks in 2010, she did so knowing her actions violated the law, and would later plead guilty to 20 charges against her.

She hoped her disclosures would spark public debate on American foreign policy. But what came next was a 35-year prison sentence. Manning’s resolve to accept this ruling is seen by her supporters as a way to highlight the cost of whistleblowing. By facing the consequences, her story can be interpreted as a kind of moral crusade, a righteous attempt to steer the public’s attention toward Iraq and Afghanistan. That Manning now resides in Fort Leavenworth’s disciplinary barracks, while Edward Snowden accepts asylum in Russia is an intriguing contrast. What would happen to Snowden if he came back home? How would his punishment influence public policy?

In “The Internet’s Own Boy,” we’re asked a similar question. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, the new documentary film sketches the brief, promising life of Aaron Swartz, computer programmer and political activist, and outlines the events leading up to his baffling suicide.

The government’s case against Swartz involved the download of millions of articles from an academic database called JSTOR. In September 2010, Swartz began using a newly purchased laptop, a Python script, and MIT’s open network—which granted its users free access to JSTOR—to grab the articles. Once MIT and JSTOR administrators realized what was happening, the University installed a hidden camera in the unlocked wiring closet where Swartz had stationed his computer. Days later, Swartz was caught on the surveillance camera swapping a new hard drive. He was then swarmed by police, arrested, and eventually indicted on 13 felony counts.

“The Internet’s Own Boy” glides forward using interviews with those closest to Swartz. Archival footage and a helpful narration keep the legal storyline clear and maintain the dramatic tension even as the ending is known from the beginning. Why Aaron Swartz hanged himself is never made clear. But the film leans hard on the explanation that the government’s prosecution, and its intimidating threat of substantial jail time, led the 26-year old to end his life. This view seems reasonable, but it’s never satisfying. Not for Aaron’s father, Robert, whose body clenches on screen with suppressed anger, and not for the viewer who wants more than simplicity and blame.

Following many news reports written after Swartz’s death, “The Internet’s Own Boy” lingers on notes of betrayal, both by his ex-girlfriend Quinn Norton and by MIT. During the investigation, Norton entered into an agreement with prosecutors to share information in exchange for immunity. And MIT, an institution known for celebrating the spirit of hacking, was the reason law enforcement first became involved. As the seriousness of the situation developed, MIT never lent its moral authority to defend Swartz; many believe such an intervention would have deflated the government’s case. Compared to other accounts of Swartz’s death, the movie downplays the psychological affliction that haunted the young man. Where other stories portrayed a strange, fraught, and brilliant thinker, Knappenberger paints a martyr.

No one will ever know for certain what Swartz intended to do with the JSTOR articles. But the movie succeeds in relaying the intense, suffocating pressure of becoming an adversary of the government. It also reveals the absurd mismatch between our technological capabilities and the outdated laws that govern them.

In the teary aftermath, the public heartache over Swartz’s death reinforced the belief that the Internet represents its own ideology: of freedom, transparency and a new, open society. But through the film, you learn that Swartz doesn’t subscribe to this naive understanding of political reform. His life’s turn from coding and hacking to organizing and advocacy was his great unfishined project. That he’s no longer here to make our government more humane is our impressive loss.