It’s been more than a year since Aaron Swartz’s tragic death, and now Aaron’s life is the subject of a new documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy, directed by Brian Knappenberger. The documentary has received much acclaim and deservedly so. It tells the story of a political activist and innovator who put theory into practice, always experimenting and building new tools and methodologies to animate his theory of change.

Aaron Swartz fought for an Internet grounded in community, creativity, and human rights. By co-creating platforms like RSS, reddit, Creative Commons, and the technology that became SecureDrop, he helped make information accessible. Perhaps more than anything, Aaron Swartz helped hundreds of thousands of people participate in the political processes that determine the laws we have to live under everyday.

There are so many things that Aaron accomplished by the age of 26 that we thought it may help to make a companion for the film, a guide for those who want to watch with a deeper understanding of the issues behind Aaron’s projects.

We begin with the projects discussed in the film and then examine the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law that was used to indict him on 11 criminal charges before his tragic death.

Creative Commons and the Problem with Copyright

As a teenager, Aaron was a core member on the team of lawyers and copyright wonks that developed Creative Commons, a project that simplifies sharing with easy-to-use copyright licenses. Aaron Swartz helped to design the code behind Creative Commons licensing.

Creative Commons was a revolutionary project that remains significant today. It’s a suite of licenses that artists, writers, and other creators can use to enable sharing, remixing, and collaboration. Online, it’s incredibly easy to copy and paste, to edit, and to share instantaneously. Doing so can sometimes run smack in the face of copyright law, which requires explicit permissions to be granted in advance of sharing or using a creative work in many contexts.

Creative commons is more compatible with the intensive sharing environment of the Internet. It allows for artists, makers, programmers, writers, and everyone in between to only reserve some rights, not all rights. With a Creative Commons license, one can encourage the sharing of her work while still being attributed. One can choose not to allow others to monetize a work, but still invite remixing, or block remixing while still encouraging distribution. Brian Knappenberger has made The Internet’s Own Boy available under a Creative Commons license and can be downloaded and shared for free from the Internet Archive.

Open Access and Open Government

A large part of The Internet’s Own Boy traces Aaron’s various projects aimed at furthering the pursuit of information. He wanted to make it easier to learn about the laws that we have to live with everyday, as well as ease access to the academic articles that form the building blocks of our knowledge about the world.

“The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals,” reads the Open Access Manifesto, which was written by Aaron and is quoted in The Internet’s Own Boy, “is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.”

Aaron started projects like The Open Library that seeks to make one webpage for every book published (imagine a future where we don’t link to Amazon when directing people to a book). And during his brief stint at Stanford, Aaron worked with a law student to download the entire Westlaw database of law review articles and found troubling connections between funders of research and favorable conclusions.

Aaron’s quest led him to the PACER system, the federal judiciary’s pay-walled public court record database. PACER charges per page to view US court documents that are a matter of public record. Journalists, students, litigants, academics, and all kinds of people need access to the details of the litigation that defines our laws in order to do their work. We shouldn’t have to pay to see the law.

Information activists like Carl Malamud have long been critical of PACER and in 2009, when the system launched a project to allow free PACER access at 17 libraries nationwide, Malamud encouraged patrons to download PACER records and share them on an online repository. Aaron Swartz accepted the invitation and wrote a computer program that downloaded 20 million pages of federal court documents. In the process, scores of privacy violations were found in the PACER documents, which revealed Social Security numbers, Secret Service agents’ identities, and the like, leading to stricter privacy enforcement in the courts.

For doing this Swartz became the target of an FBI investigation that was later dropped. But as Malamud remembers in The Internet’s Own Boy, “I’ll grant you that downloading 20 million pages had perhaps exceeded the expectations of the people running the pilot access [PACER] project, but surprising a bureaucrat isn’t illegal.”

Stopping SOPA

Aaron Swartz played a central role in the fight to stop the censorious Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that snowballed into the largest online campaign in history. SOPA was a poorly worded bill would have allowed the Department of Justice to shut down entire Internet domains because content posted on a single website might be infringing copyright—and without a trial.

Swartz co-founded Demand Progress, a digital rights organization that EFF continues to work with closely today. Demand Progress was instrumental in organizing the grassroots outcry; they boiled down the bill into super simple language and asked that people take a quick action to stop it. Most people in DC were trying to make slight improvements to a terrible bill, but Demand Progress, along with EFF, Fight for the Future, and Public Knowledge, and others mounted a campaign to stop it completely.

Wikipedia, Mozilla, Google, and countless others blacked out websites and displayed banners over their logos sending people to a petition to oppose the bill. It worked. SOPA didn’t pass, and today it remains one of the most important chapters in the history of the digital rights movement.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

“There’s no justice in following unjust laws,” reads the Open Access Manifesto penned by Aaron Swartz. And an unjust law is exactly what prosecutors used against Swartz, who was charged with 13 criminal counts for downloading millions of articles from an academic journal database, on MITs network. An unjust system charged Aaron Swartz in a way that would have put him in jail for years (the maximum sentence possible added up to 35 years, yet we realize that would have been an unlikely outcome) in jail for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The prosecution of Aaron also reflected profound problems with the criminal justice system far beyond the CFAA, including the incentives for prosecutors to pursue charges as aggressively as possible to try to make a defendant plead guilty.

Eleven of the thirteen counts against Aaron were based on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a law written in 1984 that makes it a crime to access a computer without “authorization” or in excess of authorized access. But these terms aren’t clear and the Department of Justice in the past has argued the CFAA makes it a federal crime to violate [HF3] a website’s terms of service, meaning that something like lying about your age or your height online could be counted as a federal crime.  

Framing Aaron’s Law as a Good Start

The Internet’s Own Boy points viewers to Aaron’s Law, a bill proposed soon after Swartz’s passing that would partly fix the broken and outdated CFAA. We support Aaron’s Law. If it passed, everyday computer users wouldn’t face criminal liability for violating a terms of service agreement and would protect users who access information in ways that protect their anonymity. But unfortunately, the bill does not go far enough and does not—currently—have wide spread support in Congress.

Aaron’s Law, as drafted wouldn’t have protected Aaron Swartz from the excessive penalties mounted against him. The CFAA currently punishes low-level offenses as felonies that, in a saner world, would be classified as misdemeanors. Currently, the CFAA is structured so that the same behavior can often be double-counted as violations of multiple provisions of law, which prosecutors then combine to beef up the potential penalties to an absurd degree. We strongly believe that CFAA reform should eliminate this kind of double-counting.

The Fight Continues

Aaron sought to make the world a better place; he wanted to share access to knowledge and expose corruption. Our movement to defend digital rights is stronger because of him. And we can only imagine how Aaron would have contributed to the fight to protect our rights and expand our freedoms as more people come to depend on an open Internet.

We will continue to fight. Aaron’s story is one worth telling. That’s why we encourage everyone who has seen this documentary to show it to a friend, host a screening at work or on campus, and encourage others to watch it. In a following post we will provide materials to host a viewing party of The Internet’s Own Boy and outline what we can all do to restore justice to computer crime laws, to improve access to knowledge, and defend free speech, and the future of our open Internet. We hope you’ll join us.