I recently had the opportunity to attend a viewing of “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” presented by Sundance Film Forward and the University of Michigan Library. I had already viewed the film online, but was drawn to this particular viewing at the Michigan Theatre for the opportunity to discuss the film with director Brian Knappenberger after the showing. The viewing was well-attended and I did not get a chance to speak during discussion, but I would get my opportunity later.
If you are not familiar with “The Internet’s Own Boy”, it is a film about the life and death of Aaron Swartz, a young tech advocate and activist who had a hand in creating RSS technology, Creative Commons, Demand Progress, and Reddit. Swartz‘s story had always stuck with me because of his work with technology and activism, which has become one of my passions within the last few years, and also because I have had my own struggles with suicide and self-harm. Watching this film never fails to leave me in an emotional state, but it also provides deep inspiration for me. Swartz’s story continues to inspire me to take a stand for things that are important to me. To use my skills to better the world. To be the thorn in the side of all my naysayers. To be unapologetic for being young.
A colleague who helped organize the event, stopped my partner and I as we were leaving the theater. She informed us that they had a cancellation and were looking for people to join the Sundance Crew and Brian Knappenberger for dinner. Thirty minutes later and I am sitting beside Knappenberger in one of Ann Arbor’s fine Main Street restaurants. Among us were a mix of University of Michigan and Sundance folks. This included myself, my partner, and his friend as well as a couple students from the University of Michigan(U-M). Both my partner and his friend work in IT at U-M while I work at the library. The two students were studying Mathematics and Screen Arts and Culture respectively. It was an excellent blend of backgrounds and knowledge which helped facilitate some interesting discussion later that evening, including intense discussions about encryption and how to make it stronger and better. The Mathematician and IT individuals certainly had a great time with that one!
The dinner discussion with Knappenberger was a truly incredible opportunity and rarely does one have the chance to speak directly to the creator of their favorite works. I have interests in both filmmaking and activism, and I had wanted to know the type of impact a film such as this had on audiences, especially those who were uninformed on the topic.Knappenberger said that overall he described that the feedback he had received from the film had been positive and even the impromptu discussion about encryption between recent strangers had even helped illustrate this.
I enjoyed listening to Knappenberger speak on the process of making the film and how it sort of happened naturally because he was connected to several people who knew Swartz at the time of his suicide and began filming their reactions and stories. One of the more interesting points was the barriers of getting the film to be released openly and free online. They used an interesting model of having a theatrical release and making money off the film for the first 1-2 years before releasing it openly. Knappenberger made a great point about how movies make less money past their release and how it’s not impossible to make a full-length film available for free and still recoup film and production costs.
As the night wrapped up, there was buzz about a the “Open Access Activism” panel happening the following afternoon at the Hatcher Graduate Library. The panel would featuring Brian Knappenberger, director if “The Internet’s Own Boy”; Jack Bernard, U-M lawyer and associate general counsel; and Melissa Levine, director of UM Library’s Copyright office. Of course, we went.
The panel was titled “Open Access Activism”, but was more focused on Swartz’s story and how it related to the University of Michigan. I thought there were some incredible questions that were brought up during this discussion and also learned some surprising things.
The panel was led with a question in regard to Swartz’s JSTOR downloads, “why didn’t Swartz talk to a librarian?”. This is was an excellent way to start off the panel and the answers were quite interesting. Many folks felt that if Swartz had just asked a librarian about collecting articles for JSTOR, then he may not have been in the situation that he was, which is definitely a possibility. I think this is a great point, but perhaps simplifying things a bit. It may be easy for a room full of librarians to say “why not ask a librarian”, but perhaps should ask themselves that questions first. What usually prompts someone to ask a librarian? I work in a library where librarians are accessible and abundant and I still don’t ask a librarian anything unless I need help or run into an issue. When downloading the JSTOR articles, I’m not sure if Swartz ran into anything he saw as an issue or something that he that he felt he alone could not handle. He was a tech wiz and already had his own methods of accessing those articles. I would argue that Swartz’s methods, although they fell within this legal gray area, were probably faster and more effective than any option a librarian could provide. In hindsight, I wish the question was open to audience because I am curious to hear what librarians would say to someone’s request to download thousands of JSTOR articles in a short period of time.
The conversation moved to Jack Benard, U-M lawyer and associate general counsel, when he was asked, “would the University of Michigan have acted any differently in this situation than MIT?”. The short answer was no. Bernard went on to explain that in these situations, the University of Michigan would have likely – and have done before – set up stings like this to catch the perpetrator. A follow up question from a network security professional asked if U-M would ever knowingly allow unknown and potentially harmful device, like Swartz’s laptop, to remain connected to the university’s network for investigations. Bernard illustrated that U-M looks at these situations case-by-case to determine risks, and that yes they would leave an unknown device connected to the university’s network if it is not deemed a high risk. Another great follow-up I would have liked to heard more about was how U-M determines whether devices are a risk.
The remainder of the talk was mostly focused on Swartz’s actions and his guilt in the JSTOR/MIT incident. The final 10-15 minutes was left to the audience to discuss with panel members and ask questions. It was an extremely interesting talk and I had learned some unexpected things about U-M’s policies, which was an added plus.
I waited until the crowd from the panel cleared out and approached Brian Knappenberger with a small bag of my handmade buttons. It was my way of thanking him for taking the time to tour with this film and to chat with people like myself. The buttons I gave him included the same anti-NSA buttons that I gave Cory Doctorow at the 2014 Penguicon conference and that I had passed out for The Day we Fight Back. (And I would be lying if I said I didn’t secretly wish Cory Doctorow and Brian Knappenberger would coordinate with each other to wear my buttons at the same time). These are the folks who motivate me to do what I do and I sure hope they realize the impact they have.