New Film “The Internet’s Own Boy” About Aaron Swartz
One year ago this month, the young Internet freedom activist and groundbreaking programmer Aaron Swartz took his own life. Swartz died shortly before he was set to go to trial for downloading millions of academic articles from servers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology based on the belief that the articles should be freely available online. At the time he committed suicide, Swartz was facing 35 years in prison, a penalty supporters called excessively harsh. Today we spend the hour looking at the new documentary, “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.” We play excerpts of the film and speak with Swartz’s father Robert, his brother Noah, his lawyer Elliot Peters, and filmmaker Brian Knappenberger.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Park City TV in Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival, the largest festival for independent cinema in the United States. This is our fifth year covering some of the films here, and the people and topics they explore.
Today, we spend the hour with the people involved in an incredible documentary that just had its world premiere here yesterday. It’s called The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. It comes as Aaron’s loved ones and friends mark the first anniversary of his death. It was just over a year ago, on January 11th, 2013, that the young Internet freedom activist took his own life. He was 26 years old. This is a clip of Aaron Swartz from the film.
AARON SWARTZ: I mean, I, you know, feel very strongly that it’s not enough to just live in the world as it is, to just kind of take what you’re given and, you know, follow the things that adults told you to do and that your parents told you to do and that society tells you to do. I think you should always be questioning. You know, I take this very scientific attitude that everything you’ve learned is just provisional, that, you know, it’s always open to recantation or refutation or questioning. And I think the same applies to society. Once I realized that there were real, serious problems, fundamental problems that I could do something to address, I didn’t see a way to forget that. I didn’t see a way not to.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Aaron Swartz in his early twenties. By that time, Aaron was already an Internet legend. At the age of 14, Aaron helped develop RSS, Really Simple Syndication, which changed how people get online content, allowing them to subscribe to different sources of information like blogs and podcasts. He also helped develop the Creative Commons alternative to copyright, which encourages authors and publishers to share content. He founded a company, Infogami, that merged with Reddit, which allows users to collectively rank and promote contributed content, is now one of the most popular websites globally.
In 2010, Aaron Swartz became a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. It was around this time that he used the Internet at nearby MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to download millions of digitized academic articles run by a nonprofit company calledJSTOR. Aaron believed the articles should be freely available online. Although Aaron did not give or sell the files to anyone, the federal government filed multiple felony charges against him. At the time he committed suicide, Aaron was facing 35 years in prison, a penalty supporters called excessively harsh.
Now, despite promises of reform, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act used to charge Swartz remains unchanged. A bill proposed by Congressmember Zoe Lofgren, called “Aaron’s Law,” remains stalled in committee. It’s meant to ensure victimless computer activities are not charged as felonies.
On the Sunday after the first anniversary of Swartz’s death, the hacker group Anonymous attacked a number of MIT’s websites and posted messages criticizing Swartz’s prosecution and calling for a reform of Internet regulation. The message said, quote, “We call for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all.”
The same weekend, a group of activists inspired by Aaron also launched what they called the “New Hampshire Rebellion,” a two-week walk across New Hampshire to protest government corruption. Campaign finance reform was another one of the many issues Aaron cared deeply about.
In a minute, we’ll be joined by Aaron’s brother, Noah Swartz; his lawyer, Elliot Peters; and by Brian Knappenberger, the director of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz; as well as Aaron’s father, Robert Swartz. But first, I want to play an extended clip from what, well, recalls a happier time in Aaron’s life as an activist. It begins with Trevor Timm with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and then Senator Ron Wyden. We also hear from Aaron himself and then his girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman.
TREVOR TIMM: SOPA was the bill that was intended to curtail online piracy of music and movies, but what it did was basically take a sledgehammer to a problem that needed a scalpel.
REP. ZOE LOFGREN: There’s collateral damage in the digital…
SEN. RON WYDEN: There were only a handful of us who said, “Look, we’re not for piracy, either, but it makes no sense to destroy the architecture of the Internet, the domain name system and so much that makes it free and open, in the name of fighting piracy. And Aaron got that right away.
AARON SWARTZ: The freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution, the freedoms our country had been built on, would be suddenly deleted. New technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out fundamental rights we had always taken for granted. And I realized that day that I couldn’t let that happen.
TAREN STINEBRICKNER-KAUFFMAN: I don’t think anybody really thought that SOPAcould be beaten. I remember him just turning to me and being like, “I think we might win this.”
DAVID SEGAL: Aaron was one of the most prominent people in a community of people who helped lead organizing around social justice issues at the federal level in this country.
BEN WIKLER: It was like Aaron had been like striking a match, and it was being blown out, striking another one, was being blown out, and finally he’d like manage to catch enough kindling that the flame actually caught, and then it turned into this roaring blaze.
AARON SWARTZ: Wikipedia went black. Reddit went black. Craigslist went black. The phone lines on Capitol Hill flat-out melted. Members of Congress started rushing to issue statements retracting their support for the bill that they were promoting just a couple days ago. And that was when, as hard as it was for me to believe, after all this, we had won. The thing that everyone said was impossible, that some of the biggest companies in the world had written off as kind of a pipe dream, had happened. We did it. We won.
DECLAN McCULLAGH: This is a historic week in Internet politics, maybe American politics.
PETER ECKERSLEY: The thing that we heard from people in Washington, D.C., from staffers on Capitol Hill, was they received more emails and more phone calls on SOPAblackout day than they’d ever received about anything. I think that was an extremely exciting moment. This was the moment when the Internet had grown up politically.
AARON SWARTZ: It’s easy sometimes to feel like you’re powerless, like when you come out in the streets and you march and you yell, and nobody hears you. But I’m here to tell you today: You are powerful.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, that recalls a happier time in Aaron’s life as an activist. We also heard from Aaron’s friend David Segal, founder of Demand Progress; and Ben Wikler, a friend of Aaron’s. When we come back, we’ll be joined by Aaron’s brother Noah and his father Robert. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, from the Sundance Film Festival, where a film on Aaron Swartz has just premiered. Stay with us.[break]
AMY GOODMAN: “Extraordinary Machine” by Fiona Apple. Aaron Swartz reportedly said it was his theme song. And this is_Democracy Now!_, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Film Festival is underway. We’re spending the hour today looking at the life of the young Internet activist, Aaron Swartz. It was a year after he tragically took his own life, and now a new film about him has premiered at Sundance, called The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. We’re joined now by Aaron’s brother, Noah, and his father, Robert.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! It’s a year later, but it’s so important to share condolences because of the just tremendous loss that you have suffered. Robert, talk about Aaron and what you feel it’s most important for people to understand.
ROBERT SWARTZ: I think—I mean, there’s lots of things to understand, and it’s complicated. I think Aaron was interested in making the world a better place and changing the world for the better. And I think that’s all that we have to do and can do to remember his legacy.
AMY GOODMAN: He took his own life. He committed suicide just over a year ago. Talk about the circumstances leading up to his death, what he was facing.
ROBERT SWARTZ: Well, he was facing trial for a felony—on felony charges from the federal government, and a—a really vindictive and, in many respects, nearly sadistic prosecution by the federal government, and which turned his whole life upside down, drained his financial resources, and terrified him with the prospect of destroying his future.
AMY GOODMAN: Noah, you, too, are a computer programmer. You’ve grown up in this household with computers since you were tots. Talk about the significance of Aaron’s work.
NOAH SWARTZ: As Ben Wikler is quoted in the movie, Aaron thought very firmly that he should work on what was most important in the world at any given time, and he really felt that he could do this through computers and through technology. And much of his work in the last four years had been around this. With Demand Progress and the SOPA protest, he built a whole framework for—specifically for Demand Progress, but basically for any activist organization that wants to maintain an email list, wants to be able to send actions to people, and sort of revolutionized this space with technology, in addition to working on things like SecureDrop and—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what SecureDrop—
NOAH SWARTZ: SecureDrop is a tool to protect journalistic sources by allowing them to submit articles anonymously and through an encrypted connection—or documents rather than articles.
AMY GOODMAN: Noah, you have organized hackathons. Explain what they are.
NOAH SWARTZ: So, after Aaron’s death, we decided that there was lots of work still to be done, work specifically that Aaron had touched and work done by people that he had worked with that needed help, and so we organized a number of hackathons to help people figure out what they could do with technology and with activism. So, we organized a number of hackathons. The idea is to have it either yearly or twice a year to continue Aaron’s legacy and work.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob, talk about Aaron’s growing up, his worldview. It’s a little odd to say, you know, when he’s growing up, his worldview, as five-year-old, but Aaron really did have a worldview.
ROBERT SWARTZ: I don’t know. I find these questions a little difficult. I mean, his worldview seemed to me to be normal and ordinary. And when people ask why he acted the way he did, it just seems to me peculiar, because isn’t that the way everyone would? He was very curious. He was certainly very interested in computers.
AMY GOODMAN: A deep questioner, questioning, when he was growing up, school and its role?
ROBERT SWARTZ: I don’t think that’s a particularly deep question. I mean, that’s an obvious question. Deep questions are much—are much more serious. There are much more serious deep questions than that. I mean, that’s not a deep—that’s just clear.
AMY GOODMAN: Like father, like son. As Aaron grew older, the kind of work he did, truly remarkable, I mean, one of the founders of Reddit, and moving on, though, to talk about what happened in 2010, how you came to know what happened when Aaron was arrested, and the weight of the state on Aaron?
ROBERT SWARTZ: Well, I was—I had landed in San Francisco for some meetings, and I got a call from my wife that Aaron had been arrested, and was just shattered by that news. I couldn’t really think at all the rest of the day, and tried to learn more about what was going on. I guess, initially, on the one hand, we were devastated, because any—the notion that Aaron would be arrested and be involved in the criminal justice system was completely incomprehensible, but on the other hand, the notion was that we could get this resolved in some rational way. As time went on, that became clear that it was much more complicated than we had ever imagined and much more difficult. And the weight—the weight on Aaron, in particular, was immense, as we struggled to try to resolve this.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you came to understand he did. I mean, when we talk about JSTOR—well, students in college understand what JSTOR is, but most people don’t. Explain what it is and what he did.
ROBERT SWARTZ: JSTOR is a repository for scholarly journals. So, if you take something like the American Mathematical Association’s journal, JSTOR makes that available electronically on a subscription basis to primarily academic libraries.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, they didn’t produce these articles, right? There are millions of articles that are gathered.
ROBERT SWARTZ: Right, right. No, the articles are produced for free by the academics, and the journals are edited and produced by the academic societies, in general, for free. JSTOR is not-for-profit, but nonetheless they charge both universities and their subscribers and individual users for access to those journals. So it’s very different than, say, a Disney movie, where there are people who are paid to produce the content. The people who produce this content are never paid, and I’ve never met an academic who wants to see their work behind a pay wall. The notion that the knowledge of mankind, that is—that is provided for free, should be behind a pay wall is completely wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Aaron did.
ROBERT SWARTZ: So Aaron downloaded a substantial portion of the JSTOR database—or at least that’s what’s alleged—onto a computer.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to comments of Aaron himself made at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in October of 2010. He spoke about JSTOR.
AARON SWARTZ: I am going to give you one example of something not as big as saving Congress, but something important that you can do right here at your own school. It just requires you willing to get your shoes a little bit muddy. By virtue of being students at a major U.S. university, I assume that you have access to a wide variety of scholarly journals. Pretty much every major university in the United States pays these sort of licensing fees to organizations like JSTOR and Thomson and ISI to get access to scholarly journals that the rest of the world can’t read. And these licensing fees are substantial. And they’re so substantial that people who are studying in India, instead of studying in the United States, don’t have this kind of access. They’re locked out from all of these journals. They’re locked out from our entire scientific legacy. I mean, a lot of these journal articles, they go back to the Enlightenment. Every time someone has written down a scientific paper, it’s been scanned and digitized and put in these collections.
That is a legacy that has been brought to us by the history of people doing interesting work, the history of scientists. It’s a legacy that should belong to us as a commons, as a people, but instead it’s been locked up and put online by a handful of for-profit corporations who then try and get the maximum profit they can out of it. Now, there are people, good people, trying to change this with the open access movement. So, all journals, going forward, they’re encouraging them to publish their work as open access, so open on the Internet, available for download by everybody, available for free copying, and perhaps even modification with attribution and notice.
AMY GOODMAN: After Aaron Swartz’s suicide, JSTOR expressed deep condolences to the Swartz family and maintained that the case had been instigated by the U.S. attorney’s office. They wrote, quote, “The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge. At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.” Bob Swartz, so JSTOR did not have a beef with Aaron.
ROBERT SWARTZ: That’s correct.
AMY GOODMAN: But MIT—explain. Now, this is a place, MIT, that you worked for, and you were part of the MIT community. Your father did, as well?
ROBERT SWARTZ: My father didn’t work for MIT.
AMY GOODMAN: Your father had no relationship with MIT, but you did.
ROBERT SWARTZ: I still do.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about MIT’s role in this.
ROBERT SWARTZ: Well, first of all, MIT brought in the federal authorities. They worked at the direction of the federal authorities. Rather than, as was their custom, just—which they did with another instance of this, of downloading of academic journals that was going on at the same time—disconnecting the computer and stopping it, they put a camera in order to build a case against him, and then continued to collaborate and cooperate with the U.S. attorney’s office in that, in the making of that case, where they fundamentally stonewalled us in terms of all our inquiries. We pleaded with them to intervene on Aaron’s behalf and advocate that the case be dropped, in a similar fashion toJSTOR, which went to the U.S. attorney and asked that the charges against Aaron be dropped, and they refused.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you had, presumably, a sort of a way to talk to the higher-ups at MIT. You had worked there for years.
ROBERT SWARTZ: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What was their response to you?
ROBERT SWARTZ: Their response was that MIT was neutral, which was nonsense and which—
AMY GOODMAN: Why is that nonsense?
ROBERT SWARTZ: Because they cooperated with the prosecutor. They provided the prosecutor evidence without a subpoena and a warrant. They violated any number of laws, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Aaron’s Fourth Amendment rights, the Massachusetts wiretap statute, the U.S. wiretap statute, among others, the Stored Computer Act, in their—in the way that they proceeded in the case. They also refused to cooperate with us, give us evidence, and we had very significant difficulty even getting them to respond. And when we asked them to intervene on Aaron’s behalf, they said they were unable to do that because there were multiple, different perspectives about this on MIT’s part, and therefore they must remain neutral. But in the report, the report makes clear that MIT did not remain neutral, and worked with the government.
AMY GOODMAN: Noah, what would you like to see MIT do now?
NOAH SWARTZ: Lots of things, mainly change the way they deal with this sort of playful hacking that goes on at MIT all the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Hadn’t something like this just happened, a massive downloading of information, where the student got a slap on the wrist?
NOAH SWARTZ: I mean, things like this happen at MIT all the time. And if you’re—
AMY GOODMAN: It’s MIT, after all. It’s—
NOAH SWARTZ: If you’re an MIT student, you can typically get out of the way. And if you’re not, apparently this is what happens. And if you’re an MIT student who does this off campus, you get sort of the same result that Aaron did, which is a very overprotective response from the university, trying to distance themselves from any sort of backlash or association with, you know, not illegal, but questionable activities.
AMY GOODMAN: Aaron’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, joined us on Democracy Now!about a week after Aaron’s suicide in January of 2013. I asked her to talk about Aaron, who he was, what he wanted, also how the upcoming trial had affected him.
TAREN STINEBRICKNER-KAUFFMAN: Aaron was the most—person most dedicated to fighting social injustice of anyone I’ve ever met in my life, and I loved him for it. He used to say—I used to say, “Why don’t you—why we do this thing? It will make you happy.” And he would say, “I don’t want to be happy. I just want to change the world.”
Open access to information was one of the causes that he believed in, but it was far from the only one. He fought for—during the course of this two-year ordeal, he led the fight against SOPA, the Internet censorship bill, which no one thought could be defeated when it was first introduced and which Aaron and millions of others, together, managed to fight back. And he did that all while under the burden of this—this bullying and false charges.
He was just the funniest, most lovely person. He—sorry. He—he loved children. He loved reading out loud. That was one of his favorite things. He loved David Foster Wallace. He started trying to read me Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson out loud from the first volume. We didn’t get that far because it’s very, very long. One of his favorite—favorite books was Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fanfic. We would read it to each other as chapters came out online.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Aaron’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who was with us onDemocracy Now! about a week after Aaron died last year. Your last thoughts? In a moment, after break, we’ll be joined by Aaron’s lawyer, as well as the filmmaker who did The Internet’s Own Boy. But, Bob, if you could talk about Aaron’s goals and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a little more about it, the CFAA, what Aaron’s Law would be and why it’s stuck in committee right now, and what you think needs to be done?
AMY GOODMAN: Aaron, in the end, could have pled and maybe gotten six months in jail, is that right?
ROBERT SWARTZ: Yes. I mean, it was more complicated than that, but yes.
AMY GOODMAN: He would have pled to felonies.
ROBERT SWARTZ: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And why was that—did that mean so much to Aaron, what it would have meant to be a felon?
ROBERT SWARTZ: It’s just incomprehensible, the notion that Aaron should be a felon and go to jail for something that was clearly not illegal, and he did nothing wrong. He was innocent. And to be railroaded on this basis was a complete distortion and corruption of the criminal justice system.
AMY GOODMAN: Noah, what do you feel people can do to continue Aaron’s legacy?
NOAH SWARTZ: I feel that in the film and in one of the clips I think we played on the show, Aaron says, “I’m here to tell you—you may feel powerless, but I’m here to tell you: You are powerful.” And with the work that I’m trying to do with these hackathons, a lot of people are and have been justifiably upset recently with Snowden’s revelations, with WikiLeaks, with all these things that they’re learning about how the world works. And I think Aaron’s message that we can all take on with us is that there are things we can do about this. We can actually have an impact, and we can—we can see the change we want to see in the world by participating, rather than feeling helpless and useless. And so, watching the documentary, I see Aaron, but I also see all the work that he did and all the work that I could be doing and all of us could be doing. And I think that’s the most important message to take out.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Bob, as you watched the premiere of The Internet’s Own Boy, the story of your son, the story of Aaron Swartz, with hundreds of people yesterday, what were your feelings?
ROBERT SWARTZ: Just being completely shattered.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Bob and Noah Swartz, the father and brother of Aaron Swartz. When we come back, we’re going to find more out about the legal case against Aaron, what happened in the last months of his life, and we’re going to talk to the filmmaker who did this remarkable film, Internet’s Own Boy. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.[break]
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Yesterday, a new film premiered called The Internet’s Own Boy. I want to play another clip from The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. In this extended clip, we hear from Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web; Aaron himself; Aaron’s friend, Matt Stoller; Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig, who founded the Creative Commons and was a mentor to Aaron; and Cory Doctorow, an author, activist and friend of Aaron’s.
TIM BERNERS-LEE: I think Aaron was trying to make the world work. He was trying to fix it. So he was a bit ahead of his time.
AARON SWARTZ: It is shocking to think that the accountability is so lax that they don’t even have sort of basic statistics about how big the spying program is. If the answer is, “Oh, we’re spying on so many people, we can’t possibly even count them,” then that’s an awful lot of people. It would be one thing if they said, “Look, you know, we know the number of telephones we’re spying on; we don’t know exactly how many real people that corresponds to,” but they just came back and said, “We can’t give you a number at all.” That’s pretty—I mean, it’s scary, is what it is.
MATT STOLLER: They put incredible pressure on him, took away his—all of the money he had made. They, you know, threatened to take away his physical freedom. Why did they do it? You know, I mean, well, why—why are they going after whistleblowers? You know, why are they going after people who tell the truth about all sorts of things, I mean, from the banks to the—you know, to war, to just sort of government transparency?
DAVID SIROTA: Secrecy serves those who are already in power, and we are living in an era of secrecy that coincides with an era where the government is doing also a lot of things that are probably illegal and unconstitutional. So, those two things are not coincidences.
AARON SWARTZ: It’s very clear that this technology has been developed not for small countries overseas, but right here for use in the United States by the U.S. government. The problem with the spying program is it’s this sort of long, slow expansion, you know, going back to the Nixon administration, right? Obviously, it became big after 9/11 under George W. Bush, and Obama has continued to expand it, and the problems have slowly grown worse and worse. But there’s never been this moment you can point to, say, “OK, we need to galvanize opposition today, because today is when it matters.” Instead, it’s mattered for a long time.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: So he was just doing what he thought was right, to produce a world that was better.
CORY DOCTOROW: I guess the one thing that I would say to people who are feeling the—you know, for whom the black dog is visiting, is that Aaron’s problems didn’t get solved when he died. Even now, as we try to honor Aaron’s legacy, it’s us, it’s not him. The one thing that being alive tells you is that you have the power to make things better.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. We are broadcasting from Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Film Festival is underway, spending the hour looking at the life of this young Internet freedom activist, Aaron Swartz. It’s one year since he tragically took his own life. Now a new film about him has premiered. The Internet’s Own Boypremiered yesterday. We’re joined by Brian Knappenberger, the director of the film. He also directedWe are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists. And we’re joined by attorney Elliot Peters, who represented Aaron.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Why did you make the film, Brian?
BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: Well, I was powerfully moved by Aaron’s story, on so many levels. I think that some of his early life is a very poignant chronology of Internet history. His contributions to RSS, Creative Commons, being co-founder of Reddit, it all just suggests somebody with this vision you mentioned earlier, this kind of worldview at a very young age. But I think what happened after he sold Reddit is particularly interesting to me, because he turned his back on startup culture. You know, we have a culture, a startup culture, that’s about creating, you know, companies and selling them, and he turned his back on it.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain. A lot of people might say, when he sold Reddit—he was one of the founders of Reddit.
BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: Yeah, right. So he’s—yeah, he started a site with Y Combinator called Infogami. Infogami merged with Reddit, and so he became one of three—what they call co-founders of Reddit. And when Condé Nast bought Reddit, Aaron became a 19-year-old, probably, more or less—I mean, we don’t know how much he made, but he was a very rich 19-year-old. And that startup culture didn’t sit well with him. I didn’t think—I don’t think it merged well with his sort of sense of social justice and the kind of political—the areas that he wanted to go in. You know, and let’s face it, startup culture often says they want to change the world, but it becomes a kind of slogan of sorts. It’s really about build to flip—you know, create a company, sell it to a big corporation, and do the whole thing again. I think Aaron, at that—that part of his life was really interesting to me, because he shifted to using his skills and energy to his—towards political organizing, towards the causes that he really cared about.
AMY GOODMAN: Elliot Peters, explain when you got involved in Aaron Swartz’s life. I mean, you’ve represented Google. You represented Lance Armstrong. Talk about what happened with Aaron.
ELLIOT PETERS: I got involved with Aaron after the government filed what’s called a superseding indictment against him, and he was charged with 13 felonies, including wire fraud and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. It could have put him in jail for an absurdly long time. And I met—so I met Aaron in the kind of the middle of 2012. I took over his case from some other lawyers that were handling it, and started getting ready to defend it and try it. And I got to know Aaron, and I got to know his dad, and I got to know even better the U.S. government that was chasing him.
AMY GOODMAN: All right, so talk about the pressure that Aaron was under. Talk about the 35 years of prison he faced, the million-dollar fine, the plea bargain offers that were being made, and Aaron’s attitude towards it all.
ELLIOT PETERS: Well, just the preface to that is, in my view, Aaron was innocent. I don’t believe Aaron committed a crime, and I think that we could have successfully defended him at trial. But he was under tremendous pressure, facing 13 felony counts, and they had added charges to ratchet up his exposure to jail. The prosecutor insisted that in any plea or any agreement in the case Aaron would have to go to jail and that the government would seek jail time. And I said to him the proper disposition of this case is to tell Aaron to do community service in Brooklyn by teaching high school students in the public schools in Brooklyn about computer programming, and after he’s done some of that, dismiss the case. And they said, “Absolutely not. He needs to plead guilty to 13 felonies, and he needs to go to jail.” And the kind of person that Aaron was, he never struck me as a very good candidate for federal prison. I think that the thought of that was very frightening to him. I thought it was tremendously cruel and unfair. And given my line of work, I was very eager to fight them and defend Aaron, because he deserved it.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the prosecutor, what he prosecuted before.
ELLIOT PETERS: Well, he was a computer crimes prosecutor, or so he said.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Michael Heymann?
ELLIOT PETERS: His name is Stephen.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen.
ELLIOT PETERS: Steve Heymann in Boston. And as I said in Brian’s terrific film, you’re not much of a computer crimes prosecutor if you don’t have a computer crime to prosecute. And when MIT referred this case to this task force, which included a Secret Service agent, Heymann immediately got involved. He took over the case. They turned it into an investigation. And they tried to turn it into the biggest case they could for their own purposes, with no regard, in my mind, to what was fair, or even any appreciation of who Aaron Swartz was. I’m not even sure that they cared.
AMY GOODMAN: You warned the prosecutor that they could break Aaron.
ELLIOT PETERS: He was aware that Aaron—there was a certain fragility about Aaron. But they were trying to put pressure on Aaron. They were trying, in a different way, to break Aaron. I’m not saying that they were trying to cause him to commit suicide, but they were trying to bring him to his knees so that he would knuckle under to the pressure that they were putting on him. And they were aware of that. They were intentionally maximizing the pressure on this young man. And to what end, I really don’t understand.
AMY GOODMAN: The main prosecutor in the case, Ortiz, said, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” said Carmen Ortiz.
ELLIOT PETERS: So facile, so ignorant, so stupid. Aaron wasn’t a thief. He was making a political statement. They charged him with fraud as if he was stealing something for profit. He wasn’t. He was an authorized user of the MIT computer network. He didn’t hack into anything. He logged in as any guest on the MIT campus could. He certainly downloaded more of JSTOR than they wanted, but it wasn’t to steal anything. These are a bunch of old academic journals that exist now for the purposes of increasing people’s knowledge. The idea to call Aaron a thief is just pandering to the lowest instincts of people, of viewers or listeners of Carmen Ortiz’s press conference.
AMY GOODMAN: We just played—Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney in Boston who Steve Heymann worked for.
ELLIOT PETERS: Correct.
AMY GOODMAN: We just played a clip of Aaron talking about his philosophy and talking aboutJSTOR, and being concerned about the disparity of resources, intellectual resources, for people, say, in India versus in the United States. Brian?
BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: Yeah, absolutely. It was a huge concern of his, this walling-up of the world’s information behind a pay wall.
AMY GOODMAN: You are one of the people involved in the February 11th action that will be taking place. Explain what it is.
BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: Well, we’re leading up to some actions. You know, it’s part of a group called Stop Watching Us that was formed to protest NSA overreach and, you know, this kind of surveillance state that’s been revealed to us by Edward Snowden. And so, we are—
AMY GOODMAN: Amazing to listen to him, a year before Edward Snowden, talk about NSAsurveillance.
BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: Well, when we found that clip of Aaron, it was chilling, actually. We found Aaron talking quite a bit about NSA overreach, the amount of searching that they were doing, the amount of people that they were surveilling at that point. And those clips come about a year and a week or so before the main Snowden revelations. And he even says in the clip, there’s never been a moment when we really mobilize, that really sparks action. And he just didn’t live to see that moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, and for your film, Brian Knappenberger. The film is called—well, his first film, We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, but this film is called The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. And Elliot Peters, Aaron’s lawyer.