The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is required viewing for anyone who values free speech and justice. Brian Knappenberger’s riveting documentary is also a case study in Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department’s selective prosecution.
As liberal commentator/columnist/radio talk show host David Sirota points out in an onscreen interview the Obama administration has not prosecuted the financial sector for basically wrecking much of the world economy.
Nor has the Obama/Holder DOJ charged any of the Bush regime’s war criminals for their massive crimes against humanity (Indeed, as imperialism’s errand boy Obama re-dispatches troops to Iraq, the American public is subjected to the spectacle of Cheney and his co-conspirators who lied us into a totally unnecessary invasion, once again making pronouncements in the media — something that would have been difficult to do from the confines of the high security prison cells where they belong. Although, having said that, I beg to differ with those who contend that these war criminals shouldn’t have media access. I think we should listen very closely to their counsel — and then do exactly the opposite of what they are advising us to do in Iraq.)
Meanwhile, back at the review:
While Big Brother and the Holder Company gave the Wall Street banksters and Bush mass murderers a pass, at the same time, as Matt Taibbi points out in The Divide, American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, “Our prison population, in fact, is now the biggest in the history of human civilization.” But who does the Department of (In)Justice decide to throw the book at? Internet whiz kid Aaron Swartz, who in 2000, at the age of 14, helped develop RSS (which has been called “Really Simple Syndication,” as it enables automatic summarization of online information, among other things). The Chicago-born child prodigy went on to cofound the social networking and news website Reddit, a platform for Net communities.
Swartz attended (but did not graduate from) Stanford and became a fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics. The passionate advocate of Internet freedom and free access to information became an off- and online activist, harnessing the power of the Web to monitor the powers that be. In 2008 he founded Watchdog.net to aggregate data about politicians and helped launch the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. In 2010, Swartz founded the nonprofit Demand Progress, which spearheaded Net roots resistance that helped defeat SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, as well as PIPA. And so on.
Like a sort of Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden of academia, from September 2010 to January 2011 Swartz is believed to have mass downloaded documents from MIT’s JSTOR database, a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources. Although it’s not certain what Swartz’s motivation was for allegedly doing so, it appears that the hacktivist was attempting to thwart efforts to profiteer off of human knowledge by making this information available free of charge to the general public, which is a recurring theme of The Internet’s Own Boy.
In early 2011 the Secret Service and Cambridge Police Department starting investigating and the US Attorney’s office opened a criminal investigation into the hacking of MIT’s network. By the end of January Swartz’s office and home were raided and grand jury and subpoena actions commenced. As the documentary meticulously reveals, although JSTOR declined to press charges and MIT proclaimed its “neutrality” in the legal matter, while Jamie Dimon and Dick Cheney skated, federal prosecutor Stephen P. Heymann, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, who had a background in prosecuting computer hacking, pursued the case with Inspector Javert-like intensity, and on July 14, 2011 Swartz was charged with four felony counts, including theft of computer information, and the 24-year-old was arrested days later.
It was the bulldog versus the watchdog, and during the zigzagging trajectory of Swartz’s case, the number of felony counts against him rose to 13, and Aaron pled not guilty. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange may have been beyond Washington’s long arm of the law and members of the underground collective Anonymous (Knappenberger previously directed the 2012 doc We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists) too cagey to be caught, but Swartz was within the U.S. judicial system’s grasp, and it appears that the DOJ was determined to make an example of him. Faced with economic ruin and imprisonment for years by a vengeful administration — the Obama regime has been extraordinarily vindictive towards whistleblowers, charging more people with the Espionage Act than all previous U.S. administrations combined — the free spirited Aaron appears to have been pushed over the edge on January 11, 2013.
The 26-year-old’s death prompted protest, including from Congress — within days California’s U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren announced she’d introduce “Aaron’s Law,” to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But on March 6, 2013 an unrepentant Attorney General Holder defended Swartz’s prosecution before a Senate committee.
In The Divide, Taibbi exposes that when Eric Holder (who, during Bush’s presidency, practiced law with the Washington-based corporate defense firm Covington & Burling, which represented JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, BOA, Wells Fargo, et al) was a Clinton Administration deputy attorney general he formulated the theory of “collateral consequences” for charging corporations in 1999. Basically, this concept maintains that when considering corporate wrongdoing, prosecutors “may take into account” how a trial and conviction might affect a firm’s employees and the possible impact upon the overall economy. This doctrine has resulted in fewer and fewer prosecutions, with fines for corporations but no jail time for CEOs and banksters. Apparently, Holder and his underling, Heymann, did not take into account Swartz’s youthfulness or that since childhood he’d suffered from ulcerative colitis — or that the institutions he’d purportedly hacked were not pressing charges. (See my interview with Matt Taibbi in the Summer issue of The Progressive Magazine.)
I knew that Obama was full of shit when he selected Biden to be his running mate. The notion that the third longest serving senator who’d been in office since the Nixon era (!) represented “change” or that the senator who stabbed Anita Hill in the back and voted for Bush’s Iraq War resolution represented any sort of “hope” was obviously a hoax. Then, when Holder failed to pursue a federal prosecution of the police assassination of Oscar Grant (it took Ryan Coogler to do that with 2013’s Fruitvale Station!) I knew that he, like his boss, was also lying through his teeth. But seriously folks, if Holder and Obama were White Anglo Saxon Protestants, would anybody in their right (or left) minds consider them to be remotely “progressive”?
But I digress: The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is a compelling, powerful, well put together work, combining archival footage and original interviews with notables such as academic/activist Lawrence Lessig, Senator Ron Wyden, Representative Lofgren, as well as with Aaron’s relatives, friends, lovers, etc., who provide an intimate look into the personal side of the film’s subject. This gripping, must-see documentary — especially relevant as the struggle for Net neutrality continues and the Snowden case unfolds — is being released theatrically and on Amazon and Hulu.
Let’s hope that the criminals who selectively, maliciously, overzealously prosecuted and persecuted Aaron will someday face relentless justice not only in the court of public opinion, but in 21st century Nuremberg Trials, that try them for hounding Aaron to death, as well as the corporate elite and Bush/Obama war criminals.
R.I.P. Aaron Swartz — aloha oe (farewell to thee): Your bulb burned briefly, but brightly.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.)
Leave a Reply