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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.




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, 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 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,, and

Swartz also got involved in projects to help open up public domain files buried within, 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 and tracks the development of Gigabit Networks, broadband usage, the universal service fund, and wireless spectrum policy at 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 has led the Broadband Breakfast community since 2008. An early proponent of better broadband, better lives, he initially founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for broadband data. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over the leading media company advocating for higher-capacity internet everywhere through topical, timely and intelligent coverage. Clark also served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative.

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Broadband's Impact

House GOP Uses Oversight Hearing to Criticize FCC Actions

Partisan disputes return to FCC policies after years of a 2-2 split on the commission.



Screenshot of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers at the hearing Thursday.

WASHINGTON, December 1, 2023 – GOP lawmakers took the opportunity to slam recent Federal Communications Commission efforts at a House oversight hearing on Thursday.

That did not come as a surprise, with the communications and technology subcommittee branding the hearing as overseeing “President Biden’s broadband takeover.” Partisan disputes have resumed around FCC policies since the appointment of commissioner Anna Gomez, who gave Democrats a 3-2 majority on the commission.

The hearing also touched on spectrum policy and the Affordable Connectivity Program, which is still set to dry up in April 2024 despite months of calls for its renewal.

Digital discrimination

The FCC voted along party lines on November 15 to instate rules addressing gaps in broadband access along racial and class lines. Those rules are taking an approach industry groups opposed and allow the commission to take enforcement action against companies for practices that do not intentionally withhold broadband from protected groups.

Technology and Communications Subcommittee members and Republican commissioner Brendan Carr echoed talking points from an industry lobbying push that characterized the rules as a “micromanagement” effort to scrutinize routine business practices. 

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, said “burdensome requirements like these will discourage deployment and harm our efforts to close the digital divide.”

Rodgers sparred with FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel on the issue, interrupting her answers to questions to reclaim time.

Rosenworcel, for her part, stuck to her argument that the rules are in line with the Infrastructure Act, which mandates the commission take action “preventing discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.” 

“The language in this statute is exceptionally broad,” she said.

The act also directs the commission to take into account technical and economic feasibility of deploying networks in poor and rural areas, but Rosenworcel’s assurances that the FCC will do so have not convinced industry or Republicans.

Net neutrality

The commission also moved forward on plans to reinstate net neutrality rules in October. The rules would classify broadband internet as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, opening the industry up to more expansive regulatory oversight from the FCC. 

Similar rules were in place for two years before being repealed by the Trump FCC in 2017.

Republican committee members grilled the commission on Democratic warnings that the repeal would result in widespread traffic throttling, which did not materialize at scale in Title II’s absence.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, asked Rosenworcel “when the so-called net neutrality rules were repealed, did it end the internet as we know it today, yes or no?”

The commission chairwoman answered a string of similar questions by saying the anticlimactic end to Title II broadband rules was “a result of more than about a dozen states stepping in and developing their own net neutrality laws.”

Commissioner Carr also argued with Rosenworcel on Title II’s impact on national security, talking over each other at points. Carr said there had been “one briefing” in his six year tenure in which he was told about a security issue the government could not address without Title II oversight over broadband. 

Rosenworcel said she has told national security authorities “over and over again” that without Title II authority, she cannot take requested actions to stop bad actors from hijacking traffic.

The commission is taking public comments on the proposed net neutrality rules until January 2024.

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Broadband's Impact

FCC Pushes Congress on Spectrum Auction Authority, ACP Funding at Oversight Hearing

Commissioners from both parties emphasized the issues to the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee.



Screenshot of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel at the hearing Thursday.

WASHINGTON, November 30, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission asked Congress to move on renewing the agency’s auction authority and funding the Affordable Connectivity Program at a House oversight hearing on Thursday.

“We badly need Congress to restore the agency’s spectrum auction authority,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel at the hearing. “I have a bunch of bands that are sitting in the closet at the FCC.”

Rosenworcel pointed to 550 megahertz in the 12.7-13.25 GHz band. The commission would “be able to proceed to auction on that relatively quickly” if given the go ahead, she said.

The commission’s authority to auction spectrum expired for the first time in March after Congress failed to extend it. Auction authority lets the commission auction off and issue licenses allowing the use of certain electromagnetic frequency bands for wireless communication.

Repeated pushes to restore the ability, first handed to the commission in 1996, have stalled in the face of gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Opening up spectrum is becoming more necessary as emerging technologies and expanding networks compete for finite airwaves. The Joe Biden administration unveiled a plan this month to begin two-year studies of almost 2,800 MHz of government spectrum for potential commercial use.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said that’s not fast enough. “I would have had the spectrum plan actually free up more than zero megahertz of spectrum,” he said.

Rosenworcel said the FCC was in talks with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency that wrote up the plan, during the drafting process. When asked if the NTIA followed her recommendations, she said she would “like everyone to move faster and have a bigger pipeline in general.”

Commissioners expressed support for a House bill that would give the FCC temporary authority to issue the licenses it already auctioned off for 5G networks in the 2.5 GHz band. An identical bill passed the Senate in September.

T-Mobile took home more than 85 percent of the 8,000 total licenses in the band for $304 million, but the company and other winners cannot legally use their spectrum until the FCC issues the licenses.

Affordable Connectivity Program

Also at the top of commissioners’ minds was the Affordable Connectivity Program. Set up with $14 billion from the Infrastructure Act, the program provides a monthly internet subsidy for 22 million low-income households.

The program is expected to run out of money in April 2024.

“We have come so far, we can’t go back,” Rosenworcel said. “We need Congress to continue to fund this program. If it does not, in April of next year we’ll have to unplug households.”

The Biden administration asked Congress in October for $6 billion in the upcoming appropriations bill to keep the ACP afloat through December 2024. The government has been funded since September by stop-gap measures, with House Republicans ousting former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, over his unwillingness to cut spending and making similar demands of his replacement. 

A coalition of 26 governors joined the chorus of calls to extend the program on November 16. Lawmakers, activists, and broadband companies have been sounding the alarm on the program’s expiration for months as the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment effort gets underway. Without the subsidy, experts have said, households could be unable to access the new infrastructure built by BEAD.

Representative Yvette Clarke, D-NY, said of the ACP shortfall that she is “looking forward to introducing legislation on that very subject before Congress concludes its work for the year.”

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Broadband Updates

All States and Territories Have Released BEAD Proposals for Public Comment

The proposals detail plans for the $42.5 billion broadband expansion program.



Screenshot of the FCC's broadband map.

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2023 – All 56 states and territories have now released for comment their Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment initial proposals.

Funded by the 2021 Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, the BEAD program provides $42.5 billion for expanding broadband infrastructure. That money was allocated to states and territories in June based on their unconnected populations.

A final wave released their proposals for funding projects with that money in recent weeks, with Florida bringing the total to 56 on Wednesday. 

States and territories are required to submit those proposals, which come in two volumes, to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by December 27. So far, 24 have submitted volume one and three have submitted volume two

Volume one details how states will ground-truth broadband coverage data. The Federal Communications Commission’s largely provider-reported coverage map was used to allocate BEAD money, but is not considered accurate enough to determine which specific locations lack broadband. 

Volume two outlines states’ plans for administering grant programs with their BEAD funds. That includes provisions like how grant applications will be scored, financing requirements, and the price at which states will start to consider technology other than the fiber-optic cable favored by the program.

The NTIA approved volume one from Louisiana on September 22 and Virginia on October 25, allowing their challenge processes to kick off. Those are each slated to last 90 days, after which the states will have finalized their list of which locations are eligible for BEAD-funded broadband.

The agency has yet to approve a volume two.

States are able to submit volume one before volume two, an effort by the NTIA to get challenge processes started and expedite the program’s process. 

Once a state or territory’s volume two is approved, it will have one year to award grants under the process outlined in that volume and submit a final proposal to the NTIA. Projects are slated to get underway after the agency signs off on those final proposals.

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