Thursday, July 17, 2014

Movie Review: The Internet's Own Boy

The Internet’s Own Boy
Directed by: Brian Knappenberger.
Written by: Brian Knappenberger.

Aaron Schwartz was a computer prodigy, who was working with teams and on projects that most people his own age – or of any age for that matter – wouldn’t have the slightest idea about. He was a genius programmer – one of the minds behind Reddit – and he became rich at a young age. But money didn’t interest him. He eventually left Reddit – badly – because he didn’t want to use his mind to simply make money for himself. He was an idealist who thought the internet and the knowledge it contained should be open to everyone. It’s this belief that will eventually cause him to do some times that bring the attention of law enforcement – and Prosecutors who will charge him with a litany of crimes, which could cost him decades behind bars. Under this immense pressure, Schwartz eventually snapped, and killed himself. It was a tragic loss of a bright young mind.

Brian Knappenberger’s documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy, unsurprisingly is a one sided documentary firmly in the pro-Aaron Schwartz camp. This is the same filmmaker who made We Are Legion last year about the “hacktivist” group Anonymous, which also was firmly in their camp. I thought that in that situation, he could have been harder on Anonymous than he was. But in this case, I find it hard to complain too much. Aaron Schwartz didn’t deserve the treatment he got.

What was Schwartz’s crime that could have landed him in prison for decades? He found an unlocked server room at MIT, and used it to downloaded thousands of academic research papers from J-Store – one of the companies who collect all the academic papers published, and hide them away behind a paywall that most people don’t have access to. He didn’t do anything with the articles – not yet anyway – and there’s no real evidence to suggest what he was planning on doing with them. He had done something similar with court documents earlier – creating an automated program to download the documents that you have to pay to access. To Schwartz – and many others – this seems absurd. How can the law not be free for all in democracy like America? To Schwartz, the Academic papers are similar. How can the collected knowledge of human kind – which these papers represent – not be made public knowledge? It’s not like the people who wrote the papers are getting paid. Just companies like J-Store.

Why was the government so hell-bent on prosecuting Schwartz? They, of course, refused to be interviewed for the film, so we’ll never really know for sure – just like we’ll never really know what Schwartz was going to do with the articles he downloaded – but it’s easy to make the case that they wanted to make an example out of him. This was a crime where the victims weren’t really complaining – J-Store didn’t want a prosecution to go forward, but had no say in the matter. MIT remained neutral in the matter – which infuriated many, who think this neutrality goes against what they are supposed to stand for. For the people in the movie – and I find this hard to disagree with – this should have been something that was handled internally, without getting the criminal courts involved. But not to the government. They go after Schwartz hard – and when he refuses to accept a plea – they go even harder.

The Internet’s Own Boy is a tragic story. To a certain extent, Schwartz brought the attention on himself. He knew what he was doing what not exactly legal – but he didn’t expect the reaction he got. Still, how anyone can argue that what he did deserved the charges filed against him by the government is beyond me. Why should people have to pay for access to the law, or access to Academic papers? This are fairly basic things. He wasn’t downloading movies or music so he didn’t have to pay; he wasn’t making any money off what he was doing. He wanted knowledge to be free. And what about that is wrong exactly?

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