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‘On the Internet, No One Knows You’re a Child’: The Short Life of Aaron Swartz, at Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah, January 23, 2014 – On the internet, no one knows you’re a child.

That, at least, was the message I took from watching the film about the life of Aaron Swartz. The film, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” premiered this week here at the Sundance Film Festival, during which it received a sustained standing ovation.

The documentary is a biography of, and tribute to, the all-too-short life of Swartz, who died a year ago this month, at age 26.

Swartz had been under intense pressure from the federal prosecutors in Massachusetts. Criminal charges filed against him, if proven, could have imprisoned him for 35 years. Those charges stemmed from Swartz’s having downloaded millions of articles from JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, onto a computer at the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While it is unclear what Swartz intended to do with the articles, it seems implausible that he would have republished them in an act of copyright infringement.

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PARK CITY, Utah, January 23, 2014 – On the internet, no one knows you’re a child.

That, at least, was the message I took from watching the film about the life of Aaron Swartz. The film, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” premiered this week here at the Sundance Film Festival, during which it received a sustained standing ovation.

The documentary is a biography of, and tribute to, the all-too-short life of Swartz, who died a year ago this month, at age 26.

Swartz had been under intense pressure from the federal prosecutors in Massachusetts. Criminal charges filed against him, if proven, could have imprisoned him for 35 years. Those charges stemmed from Swartz’s having downloaded millions of articles from JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, onto a computer at the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While it is unclear what Swartz intended to do with the articles, it seems implausible that he would have republished them in an act of copyright infringement.

On January 11, 2013, he committed suicide at his home in Brooklyn.

The film, and the life of Swartz himself, has been called several things.

On one view, it’s a parable of prosecutorial abuse, or the vast overreach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the 1986 law — passed, ironically, in the year Swartz was born — which was responsible for 11 of the 13 charges leveled against Swartz. Since his death, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., introduced “Aaron’s Law” to curb CFAA’s extremes.

It’s also a tale of the blessing and the curse of the internet. Swartz said this himself, in one of the many archival clips of him included in the movie: Technologies have enabled freedom, even as they have unleased surveillance conducted by the likes of the National Security Agency.

I prefer to see the message more personally. No matter how advanced our society is, or our technologies become, the only way for a boy to grow to be a man is through the nourishment of the warm cocoon of a family. We are raised in families, and it is from them that we learn the life lessons to sustain us against a cold and often threatening world.

The director of “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” Brian Knappenberger, impressively gathered interviews from countless associates, friends, family members, and critics. These included internet luminaries as World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Cindy Cohn and technologist Peter Eckersley, author Cory Doctorow, law professor Orin Kerr, Harvard cyberlaw expert Lawrence Lessig, Rep. Lofgren, resource.org President Carl Malamud, internet freedom program officer Stephen Shultze, activist Matt Stoller, and Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden.

These are people familiar to many in the world of broadband and internet experts.

So for me, the best part of the movie was to be able to watch the interviews with his mother, his father, and his two younger brothers, as well as to see home video clips of Aaron and his younger brothers. In the film, we see not a family of crises or of extremes, but a loving father and mother who nourished Aaron’s brilliance and love of computer programming. For him, software was a tool that could magically unlock the knowledge of our universe.

The film opens and ends with clips of videotapes of Aaron as a three-year-old boy, reading a story, engaging with the camera, demonstrating his love of learning and his zeal to make a difference. As a child, he built tools to teach, and to help people to learn.

Clearly precocious, in 1999 at the age of 13, Swartz got excited about RSS, the standard for “real simple syndication” and the backbone for news readers, and social media services that would come.

He was very much a part of the culture of the internet. That culture did not and does not demand permission to innovate. Through e-mail communications, Swartz dived into the work of a standards group within the World Wide Web Consortium. Always opinionated, people started to want to meet him at technical conferences, Doctorow and Eckersley said in the film.

But while he may have had permission to innovate, he didn’t have permission to travel. For that, Aaron needed to ask his mother.

At age 13, when Swartz won second prize at ArsDigita, a competition for you people to create “useful, educational and collaborative” noncommercial web sites, he did travel from his home in Chicago to Boston. By the age of 14 and 15, he had gotten involved helping Larry Lessig to design computer-readable license for the Creative Commons alternative to copyright.

Many readers of BroadbandBreakfast.com may know Swartz. I met him around this time when, as a 15-year-old boy, he attended the oral arguments for the Eldred v. Ashcroft case before the Supreme. I had been covering Lessig’s important case challenging the longevity of copyrights from the time the case was filed. It challenged Congress’ authority to extend copyright terms from 50 years after the life of the author, to 70 years after the life of the author. That 1998 law extended corporate copyrights from 75 years to 95 years, and strategically kept the character Walt Disney from falling into the public domain. Lessig, in turn, offered Swartz one of his tickets to the oral argument.

In the film, it was his mother who noted the incongruity of Swartz’s early engagement with this adult world. Here he was, a young teenager invited to discourse on RSS or machine-readable licenses, or to follow challenges to copyright law, at an important technical conference or legal events.

“These adults regarded him as an adult,” said his mother, Susan Swartz. But she said he was just a boy.

Since Swartz’s passing, we have become uncomfortably familiar with the rest his biography: he attended Stanford University, dropping out to work on the startup and hit web site Reddit. Purchased by Conde Nast, the owners of Wired, Swartz took the money from his buyout and left to become involved projects including watchdog.net, openlibrary.org, and demandprogress.org.

Swartz also got involved in projects to help open up public domain files buried within pacer.gov, the clunky Public Access to Court Electronic Records. And, most ominously, he downloaded the articles from the academic database JSTOR at MIT, which resulted in the government’s indictment.

But at this time of remembrance, it is entirely fitting for the film to crescendo to the last, and perhaps most successful venture of Aaron Swartz’s short life: spearheading the grassroots lobbying campaign to kill Hollywood’s wish list, the Stop Online Piracy Act. Over the course of one day – January 18, 2012 – leading internet web sites like Wikipedia went dark in protest to SOPA. The act, critics said, would have crippled the internet’s domain name system. The anti-SOPA campaign turned around enough senators and members of Congress that no one on Capitol Hill has yet dared to re-introduce such a measure.

Life takes us all through dramatic ups and downs. We are all part intellects, but we are also human being with bodies and lives that need nourishment and strengthening. Watching the film, I believe that Aaron was so nourished by a loving family. They and the rest of the world grieve the loss of Aaron. We should pause to honor such families and homes that provide us with encouragement and resiliency. That’s what all of us need in the face of the sort of adversity that confronted Aaron Swartz.

Drew Clark is Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and tracks the development of Gigabit Networks, broadband usage, the universal service fund, and wireless spectrum policy at http://twitter.com/broadbandcensus. Nationally recognized for his knowledge on telecommunications law and policy, Clark brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband: job creation, telemedicine, online learning, public safety, the smart grid, eGovernment, and family connectedness. Clark is also available on Google+ and Twitter.

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark is a nationally respected U.S. telecommunications attorney. An early advocate of better broadband, better lives, he founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for better broadband data in 2008. That effort became the Broadband Breakfast media community. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over news coverage focused on digital infrastructure investment, broadband’s impact, and Big Tech. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Clark served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way. He also helps fixed wireless providers obtain spectrum licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Health

Digital Literacy Training Needed for Optimal Telehealth Outcomes, Healthcare Reps Say

Digital literacy should be a priority to unlock telehealth’s potential, a telehealth event heard.

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Photo of telehealth consultation from Healthcare IT News

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2022 – Digital literacy training should be a priority for providers and consumers to improve telehealth outcomes, experts said at a conference Tuesday.

Digital literacy training will unlock telehealth’s potential to improve health outcomes, according to the event’s experts, including improving treatment for chronic diseases, improving patient-doctor relationships, and providing easier medical access for those without access to transportation.

Julia Skapik of the National Association of Community Health Centers said at the National Telehealth Conference on Tuesday that both patients and clinicians need to be trained on how to use tools that allow both parties to communicate remotely.

Skapik said her association has plans to implement training for providers to utilize tech opportunities, such as patient portals to best engage patients.

Ann Mond Johnson from the American Telemedicine Association agreed that telehealth will improve health outcomes by giving proper training to utilize the technology to offer the services.

The Federal Communications Commission announced its telehealth program in April 2021, which set aside $200 million for health institutions to provide remote care for patients.

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Digital Inclusion

W. Antoni Sinkfield: To Succeed in 21st Century, Communities Need to Get Connected Now

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community and understand its problems.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Reverend W. Antoni Sinkfield, Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary.

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community, understand its problems, and provide support in challenging times. Particularly during the pandemic, it has been hard not to notice that my parishioners, and folks across the country, are divided into two groups: those with access to the internet, and those without.

In 2022, digital inclusion is still something we strive for in poor and rural areas throughout America. The lack of reliable internet access is an enormous disadvantage to so many people in all facets of their lives.

To fully participate in today’s society, all people, no matter who they are and no matter where they live, must have access to the internet. Think of the remote learning every child had to experience when schools were closed, and the challenges that families faced when they didn’t have access to a quality connection.

It’s a question of plain fairness.

Politicians have been talking for decades about bringing high-speed internet access to everyone, however many families continue to be left behind. More than 42 million people across the country lack affordable, reliable broadband connections, and as many as 120 million people who cannot get online are stuck with slow service that does not allow them to take advantage of everything the internet has to offer.

People of color are disproportionately affected by lack of broadband access

Lack of broadband disproportionately affects communities of color, as well: 35 percent of Americans of Latino descent and 29 percent of African-Americans do not have a broadband connection at home.

Every person in rural towns, urban neighborhoods, and tribal communities needs and deserves equal and full economic and educational opportunities. Studies show that students without home access to the internet are less likely to attend college and face a digital skills gap equivalent to three years’ worth of schooling. Small businesses, which are the cornerstone of rural and urban communities alike, need broadband to reach their customers and provide the service they expect.

Simply put, having access to the internet in every community is vital to its ability to succeed in the 21st century.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to take major steps toward a solution. Last year, Congress passed President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides $65 billion to expand broadband access and affordability. It is essential that we use this money to connect as many unserved and underserved communities as we can – and as quickly as we can.

Different places need different options to bridge the digital divide

As we bridge the digital divide, we must listen to those who have been left behind and make sure that we deploy solutions that fit their needs. Different places need different options – so it’s important that all voices are heard, and the technology that works best for the community is made readily available.

All people need access to broadband to learn, work, shop, pay bills, and get efficient healthcare.

When I talk to my parishioners, they speak about how much of their lives have transitioned online and are frustrated about not having reliable access. They do not care about the nuances of how we bring broadband to everyone. They just want to have it now – and understandably so.

This means that we must explore all solutions possible to provide high-speed broadband with the connection and support they need, when they need it, regardless of where they live.

Now is the time to meet those struggling where they are, stop dreaming about bridging the divide, and just get it done. Our government has a rare opportunity to fix an enormous problem, using money already approved for the purpose. Let’s make sure they do so in a manner that works for the communities they’re trying to help.

Rev. W. Antoni Sinkfield, Ph.D., serves as Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary, and is an ordained Itinerate Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Broadband's Impact

Biden Delivers Remarks on Free Broadband to Qualified Households

Biden compared the value of broadband to telephone service, and drew parallels to the historic effort to connect the country.

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Screenshot of President Joe Biden delivering remarks at the White Hose Rose Garden

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2022 – President Joe Biden emphasized the essential nature of broadband during a public appearance on Monday.

Biden delivered remarks at the White House Rose Garden on the day’s earlier announcement that the federal government would work with both regional and national broadband providers to provide essentially free broadband to qualified households.

“Too many Americans simply cannot afford to get connected even if there is access to get connected. So, they go without high-speed internet, or they sacrifice other necessities in order to make it work,” Biden said.

“High-speed internet is not a luxury any longer – it is a necessity,” Biden said. “That is why the bipartisan infrastructure law included $65 billion to make sure we expand access to broadband internet in every region of the country.”

Biden also laid out the criteria for eligible households to take advantage of Affordable Connectivity Program, which when paired with the effort by ISPs to keep 100 Mbps download services under $30, provides free internet to consumers.

“If your household income is twice the federal poverty level or less – that is that’s about $55,000 per year for a family of four – or $27,000 for an individual – or a member of your household is on Medicaid or supplementary [social] security income or a number of other programs – you are eligible.”

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