"Aaron [Swartz] was on the edge, he was ahead of everybody else and that's just not a comfortable place to be," says Brian Knappenberger, a documentary filmmaker who is behind a new film about Swartz's life called The Internet's Own Boy. Reason TV sat down with Knappenberger to talk about the film and a few of Swartz's ideas about freedom in the age of the Internet.
Swartz was a programming prodigy who helped create RSS and Creative Commons, and he co-founded Reddit. After selling Reddit to Condé Nast, Swartz turned his attention to political organizing, becoming a popular Internet activist who tried to bring attention to progressive causes and freedom on the web. In 2012, he helped bring attention to censorship issues in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill, a protest that culminated with top websites like Google, Wikipedia and Reddit blacking out their pages.
"He had a set of skills that he could put in the service of the public good and he didn't see a reason that if he had those skills that he shouldn't do that," says Knappenberger.
In 2013, Swartz took his own life after the U.S. Department of Justice charged him with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act a few years prior for illegally downloading millions of academic research articles from JSTOR, a nonprofit company that sells such materials. The charges carried a maximum penalty of $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison.
"And this is research that is paid for by taxpayers or research that was already in the public domain," says Knappenberg, who says the Justice Department may have tried to make an example of Swartz. "Honestly, the vast majority of things that Aaron was doing seemed to be political organizing, so what were they trying to deter?"
Knappenberger was the producer and director of the 2012 documentary We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists and has produced documentaries for Bloomberg, Frontline, and PBS. The Internet's Own Boy is available for download and is in selected theaters June 27, 2014.
Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Zach Weissmuller and Will Neff. Music by Podington Bear.
About 8:00 minutes.
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