I’m currently enjoying the Traverse City Film Festival. One of the movies that I chose was The Internet’s Own Boy:The Story of Aaron Schwartz. See below for a movie recap and my thoughts.
For those of you who are familiar with the story, Aaron was a gifted child who learned to program. At the age of 14, he helped write the standard of RSS (RSS is a fundamental standard for the web, even though most people don’t know what it is, they use it). Note that he was involved in writing the standard. These are the guiding principles of RSS. This is one example of the deep thoughts that he had, and communicated.
He was also one of the founders of Reddit. When Reddit was bought out, Aaron made a good bit of money. However, he really didn’t fit in with corporate culture (he complained that he wanted to work) and famously got himself fired. He didn’t fit in within the Silicon Valley culture. He felt that people said that they wanted to change the world and make things better, but didn’t do anything tangible to make that happen. He left Silicon Valley and went back to New York. He became more and more interested in social activism.
One of his fundamental beliefs was that the information should be free. He, along with some others but posted under his name, wrote the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. This talks about how information is power and that power should not be “locked up” and held by the few.
Fast forward. Aaron works with group that is “recycling” court documents that people pay to access. The government has set up PACER which is supposed to provide the citizenry with access to official court records. However, they charge for that access. The group, and Aaron, felt that access to the law should be a fundamental right for all. That it shouldn’t be restricted to just those who can afford to pay for it. This was a major theme for Aaron. Information should be free.
Aaron ended up downloading Gigabytes of information from JSTOR through a laptop placed at MIT. The Federal government charged Aaron with several felonies. Since Aaron wanted to work in Congress or the White House, he had grown to understand where he could make true changes, and knew that a felony would mean that he couldn’t do that, he fought the charges.
The fight went on for a couple of years. JSTOR issued a notice saying that they were not interested in pursuing charges. MIT refused to publicly support dropping the charges. Still the Federal government pursued the charges. In fact, they added more felony charges under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986. The only thing that the government told Aaron’s dad is that they wanted to make Aaron an “example”. What was never clear was the example of what.
During the time of the prosecution, Aaron was also fighting for social justice. He was one of the largest voices and organizers of the movement to stop SOPA. When SOPA was first proposed, it looked like a slam dunk. That Aaron and others were able to effectively organize and defeat SOPA was a key to showing Aaron how influential and effective social organizing could be.
Aaron ended up committing suicide.
One of the things that struck me the most is how much things have changed and how unsettled those changes are for us as a society. Aaron seemed to be caught up in that. He wanted to make changes. He saw things a little differently He fought for knowledge to be free. Fought is the operative word here. There are many who are invested in the way things are (or used to be). Aaron saw that things could be different and worked to make changes.
Another theme was the lack of Congressional understanding. Congress started investing the issue after the public outcry. On of the lines repeated in the movie is “Bring in the nerds” from several Congressmen. The message was simple. The members of Congress were saying “we don’t understand this” and need someone to explain the issues to us. (Congress used to have an Office of Technology Assessment that any member could go to for help understanding these issues, but Newt Gingrich disbanded that group in 1995). Thus, we’ve ended up with Congress making laws for things that they clearly don’t understand. Not only do they not understand, but seem comfortable in in acknowledging that they don’t know (hence the jokes about “bringing in the nerds”). Add in the idea that the Federal prosecutor was using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986. This law has changed very little since 1986. Aaron was charged with “recklessly damaging a protected computer” among other things. The law makes no distinction between what happens with the information. Did it make a difference if he was going to use the information to learn something versus making the information free to anyone versus selling the information? (Interestingly, Aaron had downloaded a large amount of information in the past and used the information to analyze what was going on. He did not make the information public).
Public education is in a similar position as Congress. Things have changed. The world has changed. It is time for us to evaluate where we are, what we need to differently, what changes that we need to make. We won’t get it perfect, but we need to continue the dialogue.