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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Internet's Own Boy

The Life And Death of Internet Guru and Activist Aaron Swartz

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 11, 2014 -- I didn't want to see this movie because I thought it was just another film glamorizing people who commit suicide, but it turns out this film is more of a celebration of the short, but incredibly productive life of Aron Swartz and the things he stood for.

If you want to know about Aaron Swartz's life, read his Wikipedia article to find out about how a young man who died at the age of 26 becomes a member of the Internet Hall of Fame and has three members of Congress speaking at his funeral, along with a tribute by a founder of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee.

As a co-founder of the popular web site, Reddit, Swartz could have been very wealthy, but he chose to follow a different course, that of championing the cause of freedom of information. He worked for open access to documents, opening up the Library of Congress's complete bibliographic dataset and opening up some 2.7 million federal court documents, among other projects.

In working to open records, however, he was fighting some powerful forces, such as book and journal publishers, and government regulations regarding copyright law, which remain at odds with internet activists and open records proponents. Copyright law, in particular has not been able to keep up with the development of technology, the internet in particular. It is a classic battle of generations, the Baby Boomers and earlier generations against the people who grew up using computers.

Things came to a head when Swartz decided to illegally download the JSTOR database from MIT computers while working at nearby Harvard University. JSTOR is a digital library containing back issues of some 2,000 academic journals. Academic libraries use the database so that they don't have to physically store all the journals they subscribe to. By paying JSTOR an annual fee, college libraries and other libraries can make this online searchable database available to students and researchers.

Swartz and other open access advocates argue that JSTOR and other companies like it are making too much profit from research, much of which was paid for with money from taxpayers in the first place. They argue that the charges imposed by these companies make it too expensive for many researchers to use and that mankind as a whole would be better off if the access to these academic journals was more open.

Swartz was caught downloading millions of these academic and scientific articles by MIT, who turned the matter over to police in 2011. Eventually, Swartz was prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice, largely under some old anti-hacking laws inspired by the 1983 Movie “WarGames.” Federal prosecutors persisted, even though neither MIT, nor JSTOR supported the prosecution of Swartz. He did not hold up well under the threat of 50 years imprisonment and $1 million in fines. Swartz and his supporters had run out of money after spending over $1 million on his defense. Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013.

Federal prosecutors were criticized for overzealous prosecution of Swartz, who turned out to be a more fragile person than most suspected. The film has interviews with friends and family of Swartz, as well as influential Internet experts. Swartz's attorney said in the film he thinks Swartz would have won the case, had he stuck it out. The tragedy and human waste of this situation make the film very poignant. The significant achievements that Swartz made in his brief life stand as ample testimony to the loss to society his death represents.

People quoted in the film are very critical of the Obama Administration, pointing out that the Department of Justice never prosecuted the Wall Street bankers who damaged the economy of the whole world with allegedly illegal actions, choosing instead to prosecute easier targets, like Swartz, who don't have specialized teams of high-priced lawyers backed by large financial resources to bolster their defense. In addition, the Wall Street bankers have teams of lobbyists have paid millions of dollars in Congressional campaign contributions so they have enormous influence over the very government that is supposed to be policing them.

If Swartz was alive today, he probably would be front and center on the issue of Net Neutrality, the latest threat to the Internet. Large corporations want to control access to all the web sites by charging higher fees for preferred access to some sites, putting other sites on a slow lane of the so-called “information superhighway”. On the other side, you have people want to continue the way the Internet has always been run and give the public equal access to all sites. I think I know which side of the neutrality battle Swartz would be on. This film rates a B.

P.S. This film is freely available under a creative commons license at Archive.org. Swartz helped establish both archive.org and the creative commons system.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2014 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)