It’s clear throughout The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz that director Brian Knappenberger is partial to his documentary’s subject. But who can blame him? The blossoming programming prodigy turned enemy of the system is lovable from the moment he steps on screen.
Though Swartz has all the makings of a hero, he carries it with dorky accessibility. Friends and family describe him encouraging his brother to dress as a computer for Halloween, predating Wikipedia in his bedroom, and collaborating to develop Creative Commons at 14 years old.
Per Silicon Valley genius etiquette, Swartz enrolls at Stanford only to decide he has bigger fish to fry — namely Reddit, which he cofounds a year later. After selling the company to Condé Nast, Swartz could have rested on his millions atop the Internet ladder. Instead he chooses to take on the government in a battle to free information.
Though the subject of Knappenberger’s documentary is Swartz’s life, it inevitably becomes biographical of hacktivisim as well. Using hacking as a tool to promote social justice, hacktivists are in the midst of an increasingly visible war. Public figures such as Edward Snowden and rising groups such as Anonymous have brought media attention to the fight over who can access the Internet and by how much.
If the Internet is embroiled in war, a battle began when Swartz attempted to download JSTOR’s database of articles through the MIT network. Though Swartz claimed he was planning to make the articles accessible to the public, prosecutors accused Swartz of stealing them for the purpose of making a rival database and threatened him with 35 years in prison.
Though Knappenberger wasn’t able to interview representatives from the federal government and there’s inherent bias that comes with that omission, you have to wonder what can be said in the government’s defense. He may have been a terrorist. He may have been a thief. Limits have to be set. Examples have to be made. The omnipotent, bureaucratic force seems practically villainous (twirling mustache and all) when 26 year-old Swartz eventually commits suicide.
At one point Swartz’s former girlfriend tells prosecutors that they’re on the wrong side of history. It’s difficult to believe that the journal articles published on JSTOR fifty years from now will disagree with her. Even in the news blurbs playing throughout the documentary’s opening scenes, a line is drawn. And the government isn’t on the right side of it.
The Internet's Own Boy
Northwest Film Forum
July 11 - 17