The spotlight pick of the Human Rights and Arts Film Festival (8-22 May, ACMI), ‘The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz’ documents the life of Aaron Swartz, computer programmer and internet “hacktivist”. On January 6, 2011, Swartz was arrested by MIT Police for systematically downloading academic articles from the digital repository JSTOR, charged with two counts of wire fraud and eleven violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This Act, which was enacted by the US Government in 1986 in response to the Matthew Broderick hacker movie ‘War Games’, could arguably do with an update. These charges carried a cumulative penalty of $1 million in fines, 35 years in prison, asset forfeiture and supervised release. Two years later, following two rejected plea bargains, Swartz took his own life.
The film interviews family, friends and prominent members of the internet community including Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the internet, for their perspective on Swartz’s mission and aspects of the case. From a young age, Swartz was heavily involved in computer programming, working with Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig at age 14 to develop Creative Commons, an alternative form of copyright protection. In the next few years, he was involved in developing the programs Infogami, Jottit and the hugely popular website Reddit. The film really focused on Swartz’s work as an activist and his successful online activism campaign to prevent the passage of the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) through congress.
The film raised issues about the extent of prosecutorial zeal, suggesting that the harsh charges were in part attributable to the overly aggressive tactics of Prosecutor Stephen Heymann, seeking to make an example of Swartz. Touching on themes of cyberlaw and civil rights, this documentary raises many human rights issues surrounding due process, the right to a fair trial, the right to free speech, political participation and the fundamental question of how to ensure public access to the wealth of knowledge which is locked away by corporations. The film was followed by a Q&A with panelists including Jennifer Robinson, who is on the legal team for Julian Assange.
The documentary is definitely worth a watch for anyone interested in freedom of information and activism. Check out other shows and events at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, showing at ACMI until 22 May (http://hraff.org.au/).