Story of Aaron Swartz looks to inspire
He might not have had the profile of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, but Aaron Swartz left behind a significant technological legacy.
Involved in the development of the web feed format RSS, the organisation Creative Commons and the social news site Reddit, Swartz took his own life in early 2013 after a draining two-year battle with United States authorities over alleged illegal activities.
His death sparked outrage against the US government's copyright laws, other out-of-date legislation and its increasing use of surveillance techniques.
Documentarian Brian Knappenberger spent all of 2013 trying to piece together what went on and the result is The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, which is screening here as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.
Knappenberger says he first heard about Swartz when he was arrested in early 2011, by MIT police, on state breaking-and- entering charges, after systematically downloading academic journal articles.
"That was the beginning of a two-year legal nightmare for him. I was following people who had run afoul of the law in this way for my previous film, We Are Legion (The Story of the Hacktivists), but it was notable to me that there weren't too many people following Aaron's story and I wondered why? Then I was on a panel with his ex-girlfriend, Quinn Norton, a week after he died. I started talking with her and that became the start of real outpouring of anger and frustration."
Keen to understand what led to Swartz taking his own life, Knappenberger began interviewing his friends, colleagues and family almost immediately. "It was tough talking to people who had gone through a lot of emotions but we were always very respectful and I think people wanted to talk about it and air their thoughts."
Frustratingly for Knappenberger and his team, the government were less forthcoming.
"A lot of the stuff in the film is the result of formal requests and people pushing, but getting the government to talk on camera about this?
"They just don't do it. I just wish they had come clean about what they were doing and what they wanted from Aaron. They don't look good in this film or more broadly."
In keeping with the spirit and ethos of its subject, the documentary is available under a Creative Commons licence on the Internet Archive, says Knappenberger.
"We think that Creative Commons is one of the paths that could bridge the gap between two worlds that have been at odds with one another. On one hand you've got these big content creators who put people in jail for 'pirating' music - heck, even printing a web page is technically making a copy. Then you've got the artists who do all the work which takes time and money.
"Creative Commons offers an interesting middle ground - you remain the copyright owner but you can choose to grant various licences. For example, it can't be used commercially but if you share it with somebody, they're not going to come after you for piracy."
Knappenberger says while he hopes the film gives people a pretty good sense about what Swartz was facing, a lot of unanswered questions remain.
"I hope people take away a number of things. I hope they're angry about the US criminal justice system and it sparks some talk of reform - because it's clearly broken. It gives an enormous amount of power to prosecutors, they have incredible leverage to bring forced pleas, as shown by the fact that 90 per cent of people end up pleading out.
"I also hope the film engages people on the topic of outdated computer laws. The internet is the place where we live - it's not okay that Congress and their equivalents in other countries don't understand the internet any more. Certain acts haven't been updated since the 1980s."
On a more upbeat note, Knappenberger hopes that Swartz's story inspires others to follow his lead and turn their skills to social good. "After making his money from Reddit he really spent his time doing things in the public interest. We all have skills and we all have tools - you don't have to be a genius hacker to engage the world."
Screening as part of the Christchurch leg of the New Zealand International Film Festival, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz will play at Hoyts Riccarton on August 14 (4pm) and 17 (4.15pm). For more information, see nziff.co.nz.