I was aware of Aaron Swartz the programmer and internet activist, because of his involvement in the development of RSS, and Reddit. His death in 2013 following his persecution by US federal authorities is one of the internet’s most tragic episodes. I realise that can be no such thing as unbiased viewpoint but I think the documentary The Internet’s Own Boy does a great job of presenting a balanced examination of his life, and death. It seemed to me that there was a very clear vendetta by the US prosecutors, as well as an overarching desire to punish Swartz by prosecuting him. Equally to blame though was MIT, particularly given its standing in academia and its support of hacking as a methodology for technological innovation. 

Even more shocking to me was that the documents were never even released to the public domain yet the case went as far as it did. It seems entirely possible, given his previous work, that he was collecting content to create a large dataset for further research and insights.

It may seem obvious to us now that the business model operated by the likes of JSTOR and Elsevier was never going to benefit the dissemination of knowledge but what needs to be remembered is why it came about. In the late 80s and early 90s the cost of journal subscriptions was a huge obstacle for academic libraries and many saw the move from an ownership model to contracting with a license aggregator as a way to keep their journal holdings relevant and accessible. Yes, those e-journal resided behind a paywall, but the costs were far outweighed by the benefits at the time. I remember in the early days of e-journals that there was a sense of excitement in some parts of the academic library world. The promise was of availability of a huge range of titles to libraries that often had to make budget-based decisions on what holdings they would retain. And as well as financial constraints libraries were further constrained by limitations of physical space, and digital collections were seen as a progressive step. What wasn’t foreseen was that these aggregators would become monopolies, without any form of governance, and with a purely capitalist model for the dissemination of information.

The entire documentary is available to watch, free of any rights restrictions, by clicking on the YouTube link below.

The Internet’s Own Boy


The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vz06QO3UkQ&feature=youtu.be (Accessed: 21 September 2021).