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'You are powerful': Missing and remembering Aaron Swartz

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Internet activist Aaron Swartz (Courtesy of Brian Knappenberger)
Internet activist Aaron Swartz (Courtesy of Brian Knappenberger)

In this episode of Endless Thread, co-hosts Amory Sivertson and Ben Brock Johnson honor the legacy of internet activist Aaron Swartz with two people familiar with his life and work: documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger (The Internet's Own Boy) and Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Swartz died by suicide ten years ago this week, on Jan. 11, 2013, at the age of 26.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Ben Brock Johnson: Amory, I feel like you and I have both discovered that we were both kind of working on the news, in the news at the time that Aaron Swartz died in 2013.

Amory Sivertson: Yeah, it felt really close to home because he had connections to MIT, he was a research fellow at Harvard.

Ben: Yeah.

Amory: And I was working on a daily local news show that covered, you know, the Boston area, but also Massachusetts. And I remember it being so sad the way any news like this is. But there was so much else packed into it because, there was - I don't know if it was politicized so much as just it was it was very chaotic and charged because the state attorney general had, people thought that maybe she had played a role in his suicide, just that the pressure that he was under at the time contributed to it. So it was, it was so sad and complicated.

Ben: Swartz was a computer programmer and entrepreneur who also became really vocal and politically active around progressive causes online. He organized against the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, which had a lot of people thinking it would be bad for certain kinds of online innovation. But he was arrested in 2011 by police at MIT for what would become charges of breaking and entering, wire fraud, and violations of what is called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Swartz was at the time advocating for making more academic research public and free to taxpayers. And what he was doing at MIT was connected with his activism on that front.

Amory: The things Swartz contributed to in his 26 years of life is like a what’s what of some of the most important tools on the internet and the web today. So RSS feeds, aka how you get your podcasts. He helped build Reddit, and Creative Commons. He was an influential member of the Wikimedia foundation.

Ben: And he also was really, really involved in conversations about just kind of how the internet worked in general. So, on this week we're thinking about Aaron, because ten years ago he passed away. And Amory, you and I use the internet all the time. Turns out.

Amory: Mm hmm. But neither of us are experts, per se, in Aaron, even though we have some context and some history and some knowledge of his work. So we wanted to talk to people who actually knew Aaron and his story better than we did.

Cindy Cohn: My name is Cindy Cohn, and I'm the executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation here in San Francisco, California. 

Amory: Cindy says the EFF is really focused on helping us navigate the digital world as individuals with rights.

Cindy: Our job, you know, essentially is to make sure that when you go online, your rights go with you.

Ben: When I spoke to Cindy it became clear how long she had known Aaron.

Cindy: I met Aaron when he was a little boy. And I think I met him before the U.S. Supreme Court argument in Grokster. But I very much remember we were arguing, EFF was arguing a case in the U.S. Supreme Court called Grokster. And it had to do with copyright and how copyright was going to be handled in the digital world. And Aaron, I mean, he was young enough that there was an adult, I believe it was -  

Ben: His chaperone?  

Cindy: Chaperoning him. Yeah, he was a little too young. And he was hanging out in front of the Supreme Court the night before the oral argument in the long line, you know, the Supreme Court has a very small viewing area for the public. And Aaron, along with a couple of other people who worked with EFF, were waiting so that they could get one of the few slots. That's one of my early strong impressions of him. Of course, you know, we became friends and he was involved for a very long time such that he wasn't a little boy anymore. Of course, by the end of his life. But yeah, my memory of Aaron is basically showing up at the EFF offices pretty regularly to tell me more things that we should be doing.  

Amory: Another person who came to know Aaron Swartz and his work very well is a documentarian.

Brian Knappenberger: My name is Brian Knappenberger. I am a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles, California.

Ben: And you're coming to us from your downtown L.A. spot.

Brian: We’re coming to you straight from downtown L.A. 

Ben: Back in the early 2010s, Brian was working on a film about the hacktivist collective Anonymous. The movie was called We Are Legion. And Anonymous is of course known for hacking organizations like the Church of Scientology and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s email.

Amory: And also supporting pro-democratic movements like the Green Movement in Iran and the Arab Spring.

[We Are Legion Film Clip

Anonymous: We stand for freedom of speech. The power of the people. The ability for them to protest against the government. No censorship, especially online, but also in real life.]

Amory: Put simply, Brian was focused on how people online were making a big impact on the world.

Brian: And I heard about Aaron Swartz during that time and maybe a little bit before, and I knew a lot of people that knew Aaron.

Amory: Brian and Aaron had some friends in common, including a woman named Quinn Norton.

Brian: I hadn't met him, but I was aware of what happened. I remember when he was first arrested at MIT for downloading this sort of research knowledge. I remember when he was first arrested, I remember those headlines. I remember thinking, what's going on with Aaron and what is he doing? What was going on there? What was he trying to do? 

When he died, there was quite an outpouring of emotion and grief. It's one of the first times I really saw the internet, and that early kind of internet communities just really mourn somebody. And I understood it and I was there with them. And I wanted to understand what happened to this kind of visionary person. 

[MUSIC]

Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson.

Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson, and you’re listening to Endless Thread, coming at you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.

Ben: On January 11, 2013, five days after he was charged with a number of crimes related to computer work that he was doing, Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment. He was 26 years old.

Amory: Today on the show, 10 years after Aaron’s death, we wanted to remember him and his work with a few of the people who came to know him well.

Ben: Brian has made a number of documentary films and series for Netflix. One of his best known is The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, which he began working on a week after Aaron died.

[The Internet's Own Boy Film Clip

Aaron Swartz: You know it's easy sometimes to feel like you're powerless. Like when you come out on the streets and you march and you yell and nobody hears you. But I'm here to tell you today, you are powerful.]

Amory: As a journalist-turned-documentarian, Brian says he’s focused on what journalists do best.

Brian: I like to go after powerful people who are doing bad things. As they say, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. 

Amory: And he’s come to make work about the intersection of society and technology, and the ripple effects and unintended consequences that come with it. Ben talked to him right after the new year.

Ben: I think we think of the internet now as a pretty mixed bag. And we think of it in pretty cynical terms. Was it a surprise to you that someone like Aaron had had this, like, largely positive outpouring of support?

Brian: Uh yeah, when you think about, we do have a cynical view of the internet now. When I, if you were to kind of rewind to early 2000s, I was, I guess, what you’d call a techno utopian, you know, I kind of believed in the power of the internet. And I believed in, you know, the ability of the internet to, you know, that information could be, you know, it could be medical breakthroughs. There could be toppling of dictators. There could be all sorts of things. And there was a slow understanding that there was also a dark side to it. And Aaron was, um, Aaron was right in the middle of that conversation. And an early, very insightful participant in that conversation. I mean, he was, he was really talented in two key ways. He was this, initially this kind of Silicon Valley-type company-building tech visionary. You know, somebody that was really celebrated at that time in our culture. We saw these people, as you know, those early tech visionaries as gods basically, promising this future that they alone could see. That at least was our perception. And Aaron was part of that. He also had, nobody else in that community, he had this awareness it could be a kind of tool for civic duty as well. That the power of public access to information was important and the use of the internet not only as a brand new way to make money, but as a democratic platform in which all sorts of non directly commercial things could be built. He's amazing in that way. And truly visionary, I think. 

Ben: I wonder how you're reflecting on the documentary. And I also wonder if there are particular moments from it that still, you know, haunt is the wrong word, but still sort of pop into your mind today?

Brian: I mean, we found an extraordinary clip at one point where Aaron is saying that if the Constitution were written today, that instead of post offices written into it, there would be ISP's. 

[The Internet's Own Boy Film Clip

Aaron Swartz: Yes, definitely, I mean this notion that national security is an excuse to shut down the internet, that's exactly what we heard in Egypt and Syria and all these other countries. And so, yeah, it's true, sites like WikiLeaks are going to be putting up some embarrassing material about what the U.S. government does, and people are going to be organizing to protest about it, and try and change their government. You know, and that's a good thing, that's what all these First Amendment rights of free expression, of freedom of association are all about. And so the notion that we should try and shut those down I think, just goes against very basic American principles. The principle, I think, is one that our Founding Fathers would have understood. If the internet had been around back then, instead of putting post offices in the Constitution, they would have put ISPs.]

Brian: That's it, right? How do we look at the internet not just as a market or a path to cashing in quickly, but deeper, as a kind of critical structure, sort of like the post office, or the freeway system, or the original notion of something like the state college system in America. These are baseline things that at their best help everybody equally, right? In which society as a whole is made stronger. The internet at its best can be that same level public playing field. That's what Aaron understood. And it's very rare. That's extremely, extremely rare. 

[NBC News Clip:

Newscaster: The world’s richest man is now promising a Twitter makeover, renaming his own account Chief Twit and proclaiming ‘the bird is freed’...]

Brian: But then you fast forward now, and what is internet? I don't know how deep you want to get into what Twitter is now. Or even if we even understand it. But it's clearly been co-opted by the worst, most profit-driven elements in our society. And it's an extremely powerful tool for disinformation. And who are these other people that were around at that time? You know, I mean, from what Musk is currently tweeting, you know, this bizarre trip he's taken down the rabbit hole. You imagine if he if you talk to him about it, it isn't even that he would disagree with you. You get the sense he would just give you this blank stare and not know what you're talking about if you were talking about this sort of public access to information. I mean, does Musk's brain work that way? Does Zuckerberg's brain work that way? Right?  I don't think it does. 

Ben: But Aaron's did. 

Brian: But that that's that was core to what, Aaron - well, I mean, think about this. He sells they they they they sell Reddit to Condé Nast. He becomes an extraordinarily wealthy young adult. And what does he do? He goes to intern at, an unpaid intern, after he becomes a multimillionaire, as a young adult, he interns for free at a congressman's office that he believed was good on internet issues. That's him. He wasn't kind of drawn in and charmed by the Silicon Valley buzz. He was about the technology. And when that was about building something or creating something, he was good at that. But he also saw its ramifications. And if you think about, I mean, 2006, seven, eight, I mean, he was well ahead of virtually anybody else.

Ben: What do you think we've lost, over the last ten years without Aaron?

Brian: Well, we're all trying to figure this out. Right. We're in this new territory. We're in this new world. We're experiencing, you know, the relentless series of revelations that we had about the ways that people could be surveilled online. By and large we don't, we haven't really grasped that yet, the way corporations use these tools in order to surveil us and understand us. The way these things can be manipulated. The way that misinformation and, and bots and other things can be used to shape public opinion in all sorts of ways that aren't transparent to the average user. We're dealing with some big things here. And you can hear a lot of people if you go on Twitter at any given moment, have opinions about it, you're going to get a lot of hot takes about it. But there's not a lot of people who understand it, or understand where it's going or even understand what's happening. Not that Aaron would. But, you know, to also have this perspective that is separate from all this, this notion, this vision of what the internet could be. To have that as well, I think is something you got to, you got to bring to that debate. And I think that the debate, your question is what are we missing? I think the debate is not as rich as it would be without a mind like that. 

Ben: What would you say, you know, how might some of the major issues of the internet evolved in recent years with Aaron's input?

Brian: I think he would have been a part of the debate, an important part of the debate over policy. And I think he probably would have actually built some stuff that would have helped us. But let's just not be too morose about it. We all have that power, right? I mean, we all have the ability to roll up our sleeves and get engaged and become a part of the debate. And learn all of the elements and intricacies of the debate. And even to build our own stuff online. We all have that power, right? We all are part of this. It's not some, he's not a Superman in that way. He’s not some superhuman that is the only person that can do this. In some ways that lets us off the hook. We can actually do it. Everybody can do it. The internet is not for anybody. It's not owned by anybody. Elon Musk doesn't own it. Mark Zuckerberg doesn't own it. Jeff Bezos doesn't own it. Anybody can can participate in this discussion and can be a part of the policy discussion or be a part of the tools that make it something that might push it in another direction. 

[MUSIC]

Brian: I mean, there's no way of getting around the fact that it's sad. That it's sad to have, have lost a mind like Aaron's, the way that we lost it. But I do hope that there's some some power to what he represented. And that it’s accessible. I hope there's an empowerment that comes from his vision. 

Amory: That was documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger. In a few minutes,  we’ll hear from Cindy Cohn at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, about Aaron Swartz’s impact and beliefs when we think about our unalienable rights. As American and digital citizens.

Cindy: There is a very, I think, simplistic and manipulated view of free speech that means that we let assholes run wild. And I don't think Aaron ever thought that. 

[SPONSOR BREAK]

Amory: As we talked about earlier, someone who has known Aaron and has tried to preserve his memory and some of his work is Cindy Cohn, the director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She spoke with Ben just after the new year as well, starting with a description of what Aaron was like.

Cindy: Aaron was one of these, you know, I mean, it's kind of overused, but he was really a wunderkind, right? He was a kid who was smart, thoughtful, creative and  really used the benefits of the digital age that early time, to the great extent. He was able to, you know, help create huge tools that we still use today. You know, honestly, the earliest Creative Commons infrastructure, SecureDrop, which is a tool used by journalists all around the world now to make sure that they can protect the anonymity of their sources. You know, of course, what became Reddit. I mean, lots and lots of things that many of us rely on now, really, you know, came into being in large part because of Aaron. And that's not even touching on the work that he did on the kind of political side of things. 

Ben: What was he like to talk to?

Cindy: He's just a regular person to talk to. Now, he's a regular, very smart person to talk to. So you kind of had to make sure you were on your toes when you talked to him. But there wasn't anything otherworldly about him. He was, you know, in some ways just a regular kid from Chicago. 

Ben: Why, in your view, did Aaron Swartz die?

Cindy: Well, I mean, it's not a simple answer. I think the pressure that Aaron was under because of the way that the federal government was prosecuting him was tremendous. And I think he also, you know, he struggled, I think, with his own emotional demons, like many, many people do. And I think that the mixture of those two things ended up, you know, resulting in him taking his own life. And I think that without the federal prosecution, and also the way the federal prosecution was being handled by the prosecutors, in the kind of most thuggish way was definitely, you know, a huge factor in his decision to take his own life. But it's certainly a tragedy, you know, not only for his family and people like me who were his friends, but I think for the entire world. Because we really lost somebody who was a leading thinker. And I often think about, you know, what would Aaron be showing up in my office to, you know, push me to do today or next year or the year after that? And the loss of his voice is just profound. 

Ben: Yeah. What would he be showing up to, to ask you about and ask you to do?  

Cindy: I mean, I'm sure that Aaron would be working to do that, to push towards the things that he believed. That we should have an internet that isn't the world's greatest surveillance machine. I think he would also be working to try to open up, you know, all the world's knowledge for all the world's people. These were two things that animated him.  

Ben: How do you think he would think we're doing ten years later? 

Cindy: I think he would think that the good guys are not winning as much as they need to be winning in order to build a better future. I don't think that it's the case that, you know, we're not trying. I think the cases that, you know, the forces of repression are powerful right now. 

Ben: Aaron, was was involved in the creation of Reddit. How would you think Aaron would grade Reddit as a force for good or not? Or a force for surveillance and oppression or not? 

Cindy: I hesitate to say, because I think Aaron looked at the world with very different glasses than I looked at the world. You know, Aaron looked from a technologists' perspective. You know, one of the things that I think about Reddit is Reddit's actually done a pretty good job of figuring out how to get out of the situation in which it was kind of a cesspool for the worst impulses of society, into one where I think there's a lot more thoughtful and good conversation happening. And, you know, most of this has happened since Aaron passed away. But Reddit really had kind of deteriorated into a place that was not pleasant and not good for a lot of people in society and has slowly pulled itself out. And I think it actually does a pretty good job comparatively to some of the other social media sites.  

Ben: I was gonna say, we look at Twitter right now, you know, Twitter right now is very on the other side of that spectrum. At least that's that's our impression.

Cindy: Yeah. And I think the thing about Aaron that's important to remember is while he cared a lot about freedom, he was clear eyed that that didn't mean just empowering the worst of society and being hands off about it. You know, he was, you know, there is a very, I think, simplistic and manipulated view of free speech, that means that we let assholes run wild. And I don't think Aaron ever thought that. And I kind of miss him because I think he might have innovative ideas that are better than the ones that we're seeing right now to try to make sure that we are lifting up our discourse and making sure that there's still freedom.  

Ben: You know, some of the conversation around Aaron Swartz and his legacy and sort of what was happening around him passing away really had to do with academic information wanting to be free. 

Cindy: Yes. 

Ben: I wonder what your view is of that debate at this stage in the game, ten years later. And whether, again, it has sort of moved in the direction that Aaron might have hoped it would move or whether it hasn't?

Cindy: I think this is an area where we've seen more progress than other things that Aaron was passionate about. President Biden just issued an executive order not too long ago that is going to make publicly funded research available to the public very quickly now. I think the thing that got him in trouble with the law was the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the federal law. There are also state laws that mirror it all over the place. And, you know, we've made a little bit of progress about some pieces of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But honestly, that law is still abused on the civil side. It's one of the ways that companies prosecute security researchers and threaten them. And then, of course, for Aaron, it was actually on the criminal side. And we haven't made a lot of progress in, you know, really recognizing that the punishments are outsized. 

Ben: Is it sort of like almost like a war on drugs thing? You know what I mean? Like, is it does it come from a place of like hackers bad? We must crush the hackers? Do you know what I mean?  

Cindy: I think a little bit. I think there is still a lot of misunderstanding about how people use computers and how computers really work in our world. I mean, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is based on the idea that any time you're on somebody else's computer, you know, you have to have their permission. But, you know, the internet, like we're on other people's computers all day long, you and I, we're all right now. 

Ben: Yeah that’s where all my stuff is. It's all on other people's computers. 

Cindy: About a dozen other people's computers, right? It's not just the the computer that's recording our conversation. It's all the ones along the way. And so this is what when I say that I miss Aaron, I think that that problem wasn't central when we had Aaron. It's central now, and I miss him because I think he would help us try to figure out ways out of it. 

Ben: Cindy, thank you so much for your time and and your honest answers. Really appreciate it. 

Cindy: It's always a loss, you know, when you lose a bright star. I think that, you know, one of the things I'm happy about is that, you know, it's ten years later and we're still talking about Aaron and his legacy. And I still meet young, bright, people who were inspired by Aaron. And I hope that he can continue to be a bright star for other people who are interested in building a better world.  

Ben: So Amory, I had somebody close to me die recently. And it was a surprise and it was very sad. And one of the things that I’m thinking about after hearing from Brian and Cindy is something that I heard at the funeral for that person. Which was, somebody got up and spoke and talked about this idea of carrying forward someone’s legacy even if they have left. Or after they have left. And this idea that when you’re inspired by somebody and their work and the way they live in the world and the things that they care about, and they die before they should die, quote unquote, the responsibility that the people who are left have to live in ways that that person would have supported. And I guess I think about that when I’m thinking about Aaron Swartz, this person who had such an impact on the way we can live online today. And the things that he cared about. And the things that I think a lot of us could and potentially should care about. As we move and work more and more on the internet.

Amory: Yeah, same. And I feel like this echoes that, but I think anytime that we lose someone young, we not only lose that person and everything that they were to everyone in their life, in Aaron Swartz’s 26 years, but we lose everything that they could have been, and that they could have done going forward. And we have no idea what that would have been for Aaron, and we never will. But I wish we could. And when you have someone like Aaron whose incredible, technical ability is matched by a drive to use that ability to make a difference, then yeah, you hope people will carry his work forward in trying to wield the power of the internet for greater fairness, and transparency, and ultimately hopefully, for good.

Ben: Yeah, give your fellow tech nerds a hug this week.

Amory: We’re gonna give the last word today to Aaron Swartz himself. This is an excerpt of an interview for the documentary War for the Web that he did about six months before he died.

[War For The Web Film Clip

Aaron Swartz: There’s sort of these two polarizing perspectives right? Everything is great. The internet has created all this freedom and liberty and everything’s gonna be fantastic. Or everything is terrible, the internet has created all these tools for cracking down and spying and controlling what we say. And I think both are true. Right? The internet has done both. And both are kind of amazing and astonishing. And which one will win out in the long run is up to us. It doesn’t make sense to say, oh, one is doing better than the other. You know, they’re both true. And it’s up to us which ones we emphasize and which ones we take advantage of, because they’re both there and they’re both always gonna be there.]

Amory: This episode of Endless Thread was a team production effort, from Quincy Walters, Nora Saks, and Dean Russell. Mix and sound design by Paul Vaitkus. It was cohosted by me, Amory Sivertson.

Ben: And me, Ben Brock Johnson. The rest of our team is Emily Jankowski, Matt Reed, and Grace Tatter.

You can learn lots more about the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation at EFF.org.

Amory: And you can find Brian’s latest work in the Web of Make Believe: Death, Lies and the Internet, streaming on Netflix.

Ben: Our show is about the blurred lines between online communities and taking action in the real world to build the internet you believe can and should exist.

Amory: If you’ve got an unsolved mystery, an untold history, or another story from the internet you want us to tell. Hit us up: EndlessThread@wbur.org.

Ben Brock Johnson Twitter Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.

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Amory Sivertson Twitter Senior Producer, Podcasts
Amory Sivertson is a senior producer for podcasts and the co-host of Endless Thread.

More…

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