The Internets Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Documentary – The Story of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

DirectorBrian Knappenberger

This month, as part of our Secluded Series the spotlight is on The Story of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.

Aaron Swartz was gifted from a young age with computers, indicative of an extremely bright child. Swartz was an avid reader of encyclopedias and really anything he could lay his hands on. However, he became bored with school from a young age, as his priority focussed solely on computers. He was a key component in the creation of RSS, a family of web feed formats vital in the frequent publishing of updated works, such as; blog entries, news headlines, audio and video in a standardised format. His colleagues working on the project were astounded when they found out the fact that Swartz was merely fourteen years old during his contribution to this project.

From a very young age, Swartz’s technical knowledge and involvement with the open access movement provided him with many opportunities to feature as a guest speaker at a variety of events. Given the heights Swartz reached at such a young age it’s easy to forget the fact he was a child. The photos and videos that are showcased throughout the documentary from Swartz’s childhood depict a young happy child that seems visibly inquisitive and innovative. Throughout the interviews with Swartz’s family and friends they describe Swartz’s quest to make the world a better place via his pursuit of democratisation of information in the interest of the mass populace. These views were also highlighted in his personal blog

Swartz in his late teens had been a co-founder of Reddit backed by Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham. Graham’s backing led to a merger with Infogami, another Y-Combinator project. At nineteen years old Swartz became a millionaire with the sale of Reddit. According to interviewees, Swartz never became materialistic and his values/ tastes after his profitable success with Reddit did not impact this. Swartz later went on to work for Conde Nas, who acquired Reddit when he had been working in San Francisco. 

After the merger and acquisition, Swartz felt restricted and expressed his discontent at the inability to develop as a developer freely, as there were limitations/ restrictions that he felt inhibited him enforced by Conde Nas. Subsequently, Swartz stopped showing up to work allegedly and inevitably was fired. During this period Swartz’s emerging political interest became apparent. 

Promo Video

A brief video introduction to this month’s Secluded Series news article.

Aaron Swartz’s brother poses a moral question to the audience, if you had/ have the ability to change the world – would you use it to make money or make the world a better place? Aaron’s intentions and choice was obvious. Swartz’s role model/ idol Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the world wide web, had previously faced a decision of this nature. Berners-Lee had created arguably the most important breakthrough of his era and instead of striving for profit, he sought to create an open community/ environment online for society giving it away for free. 

Swartz’s activism led him to become involved with creating public access to the public domain digitally of all books via Open Library and another website called watchdog.net. The US public records for district courts e.g. civil cases, patents, etc…were behind a paywall, (PACER) which inhibited students, journalists, academics and the public in general from accessing these important documents. Swartz heard Carl Malamud’s call to action, who appealed to other activists to visit one of 17 libraries conducting a free trial of the PACER system, download court documents and send them to him for public distribution.

Swartz was introduced to an innovative solution that could be deployed to circumvent the paywall and provided the court documents to Malamud’s organisation, which resulted in the downloading of over 20 million pages of court documents. Swartz’s activities drew the attention of the FBI, which ultimately decided not to proceed with charges as the documents were in fact public. According to Swartz’s brother, the FBI began surveillance and arguably were intimidating Aaron by sitting outside the family home and occasionally driving into the driveway of the family home. 

Swartz’s vision of the liberation of information and inevitably knowledge led him to his next challenge. Since the enlightenment, the cutting edge of society’s knowledge has been documented in academic papers, which are published in academic journals, which are private. Swartz was diametrically opposed to this, as he believed the legacy we should be creating should be based on ensuring access for the general population to the keys of knowledge via academic journals. 

Swartz went onto the MIT campus and accessed the IT network via an ethernet cable in a maintenance closet. This started a game of ‘cat and mouse’ with JSTOR, as they closed off access to his computer, which led him to change his IP address after JSTOR had initially closed off access to his computer. Subsequently, JSTOR had to close down access to MIT, due to the efficiency of Swartz’s script. 

After both the security and the police became aware of the physical location of their on-campus vulnerability, they opted to set up a sting operation. A surveillance operation was established in order to catch the perpetrator in action. This was to the detriment of Swartz and was in essence his downfall. Swartz was arrested and naturally, his stress levels peaked. 

Secluded Series – The Internets Own Boy: Aaron Swartz


The US District Attorney assigned to the case, Stephen Heyman, who had some experience as a prosecutor representing the United States against hackers. Heyman had previously represented the state in 2008, as a prosecutor in a case against a hacker called Johnathan James, who was allegedly an individual involved with the TJX hack, the largest personal identity hack in history. Sadly, James ended up taking his life two weeks after the secret service raided his house. 

In his suicide note, James wrote that he was killing himself in response to federal investigation and their attempts to tie him to a crime that he did not commit. James stated, “I have no faith in the ‘justice’ system.”

In 2011, Time Magazine had put a fictitious picture of a protestor, as their person of the year as the WikiLeaks release of classified documents, the Manning update and Anonymous, the hacker organisation, active with a variety of projects had dominated the news cycle and public discourse. However, the US government in contrast had bigger fish to fry e.g Aaron Swartz. 

Swartz was offered a plea deal but the conditions inevitably meant that he had to plead guilty to a felony and it was a non-negotiable demand. The prospect of a ‘David and Goliath’ court case seemed inescapable, as the plea deal was not a feasible option for Swartz, who had political aspirations. The combined resources of not only the US government but the FBI and the best law team money could buy is arguably an insurmountable task for not just an average citizen but even Swartz given the fact he was a millionaire, who was highly connected. 

However, the heartwrenching statement by Aaron Swartz echoed his thoughts on this unwinnable court case, as he stated to his former partner Quinn Norton “they won’t let felons work there”, whilst walking by the White House. The apparent desperation contained within Swartz’s words was evident when faced with the prospect of his pending court case. Norton was offered a proffer ‘A queen for a day deal’ in essence offering information, which could be used by the state in the prosecution of her former partner Swartz. Norton stated she felt helpless, under pressure, confused and at a loss for what to do when posed with this decision.

Swartz’s father pleaded with MIT to see if they could stop the case from going to trial. MIT’s unwillingness to step in or de-escalate the matter was illustrated by their statement on the matter, which stated they wanted to maintain neutrality in this situation and didn’t think that the prosecutors or the federal authorities would give much thought to the college’s interpretation of this case. 

Swartz’s activism had garnered attention. He had established Demand Progress in 2010 and had also signed the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto and was a vocal opponent of the US bill on copyright. These activities had influenced Swartz’s representation allegedly with the government and justice system, as he became an undesirable character and a source of frustration. 

The overarching theme embodied by Aaron Swartz’s pursuit is centred on the following proposition: society and its inhabitants, ecosystem and environment should be prioritised in terms of the interest of the public over the profits of private industry. Surely, society and the environment should take precedence over corporate entities.

Please click here to watch the trailer –

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