★★★★★ | The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story Of Aaron Swartz

This is the story of a charming and selfless information prodigy that strived to use his talent to make this a freer and better world for which he ended up paying for with his life.

Aaron Swartz was born in Chicago, the middle son, of successful middle-class Jewish parents. Inquisitive from birth, he taught himself to read by the age of three and by the time he reached High School he despaired of his teachers who he complained taught him less than he could read up in an hour. At 13 he won a competition for young people who created non-commercial websites for which the prize included a trip to M.I.T. From then on, there was no looking back for him.

From there the young genius played a major part in the development of the basic Internet protocol RSS and also co-founded Reddit which became the most popular social news website in the world. His work brought fame in the online communities and also wealth (when Reddit was sold) but this affable young man couldn’t have been less interested in either. What did excite him was social justice and political organising that focused on working to free up inaccessible information online that he believed belonged in the public domain and should be available to all without charge. It was what would prove to be his undoing in time.

Without Swartz’s involvement it is most unlikely that the Stop Online Piracy Act would have been defeated in Congress, but when he set about copying almost 5 million academic articles from JSTOR (Journal Storage) Database at M.I.T. events did not go his way. Swartz maintained that as these articles had been financed from public funds they should be freely available. When he was caught, JSTOR chose not press any charges but the Federal Government did and very aggressively pursued Swartz and indicted him with a total of 13 felonies. To its shame, M.I.T. just stood on sidelines and did nothing.

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The beauty of Brian Knappenberger’s rather wonderful documentary of this extraordinary young man is that he makes a concerted effort to show not only why the online community was in awe of his seemingly unlimited talent, but by including his very supportive and proud family and friends, he showed what an exceptionally nice person Swartz was too. This very unassuming man was magnanimous and both reserved and quiet but he seemed to blossom as more people called on him to help. He was a passionate thinker who used the same logical approach he employed when programming also in how tackled any social injustice he came across.

Why he took his own life is never really explained in the movie, but what is very clear from listening to all the evidence is that was a wasted life cut short. However his memory just doesn’t live on with his loved ones, and with the online community who are in awe of all his inventions and achievements. In 2013, a Bill was introduced to finally reform the ambiguous and outdated Anti-Hacking Law that the Government used so mercilessly against him. The Bill is called Aaron’s Law, as well it should be.

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Available on Netflix

About the author: Roger Walker-Dack
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