Thoughts on The Internet’s Own Boy

Over the weekend I got around to watching The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz which saw wide release a couple of weeks ago (see the viewing options on the distributor’s site or watch on the Internet Archive– it’s CC-licensed).

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz
(by Sage Ross,
Wikimedia Commons
CC-BY-SA 2.0)

It’s a fascinating documentary that should be required viewing for anyone interested in access to information. Swartz’s immense intelligence and idealism shine through, as does his love of libraries and the information contained in them. His precocity and deep understanding of the Internet resulted in numerous successes, some of which I wasn’t previously aware of.

Ultimately it was his willingness to put his name on the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, followed by action to presumably realize it (though his intent is unknown), that made him a target of prosecution. Watching this part of the documentary, the harshness of the law becomes clear, and one wonders what part of the law legitimizes prosecution for the purpose of making an example of someone.

While I don’t agree with the manifesto’s method, or even much of its language, Swartz was certainly right about open access, just as he was right about public access to court records and the potential harm of SOPA/PIPA. Even if all new peer-reviewed literature is openly available tomorrow, we are still left with the intractable fact that we have allowed centuries of scholarship to be enclosed, and libraries will be paying rent (for the fortunate few) for decades to come.

When this CC-licensed documentary can be taken off of YouTube, and when lawyers are preparing for the return of SOPA/PIPA, the contest between advocates of openness and the forces of enclosure is hardly over. Despite his tragic end, we have a model of courage when we insist that our practices follow our ideals– in particular, that public knowledge should never be enclosed. In that sense, Aaron Swartz is still with us.

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About Philip Young

Philip Young is the repository manager of VTechWorks, which provides global access to Virginia Tech scholarship. He also provides outreach to the university on open access, ORCiD, and Perma.cc.
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