The name Aaron Swartz may not mean an awful lot to some people. But if you’ve ever used Reddit, openlibrary.net or Creative Commons or if you can remember the real reason why there was an Internet black-out in 2012 then you’ve been touched by his work. Swartz was a gifted computer programmer and activist who committed suicide at age 26. The film, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story Of Aaron Swartz is a documentary about the young genius’ interesting but tragic life.
The film is directed by Brian Knappenberger who is no stranger to documenting the work of hacktivists (his previous documentary was about the group, Anonymous). In The Internet’s Own Boy, he uses home movies of Swartz plus old photographs and other archive footage along with interviews with talking heads to tell the story of this truly complex man. Included amongst the interviewees are Swartz’s family and friends with the latter group including World Wide Web founder, Tim Berners-Lee and Creative Commons founder, Lawrence Lessig, among others.
Swartz’s story begins by painting the picture of a precocious child prodigy. This eldest son of a founder of a software company was reading by age three and had an insatiable curiosity and appetite for learning. He created an encyclopaedia-like website for information sharing at the age of 12 (this was before Wikipedia and he used what he had available- ancient technology and a tiny server). By his teens he was a prolific programmer and would one day help build the modern hypertext language, RSS, which enabled the creation of a unified list of items by aggregating the feeds from other blogs and websites.
From here he would help cofound Reddit and developed his own websites, watchdog.net and openlibrary.net. Swartz’s biggest motivator was always his desire to bring things into the public domain. But it was this idea that would ultimately undo him. In 2011 Swartz used the network at MIT (Massachusetts Institute Of Technology) to run scripts enabling mass downloads of files to be copied from the JSTOR database. The latter is a digital library that draws together academic papers (some of this research is government funded) and it charges users to access each document.
It is unclear what Swartz wanted to do with these files. He didn’t actually sell them or distribute them and one interviewee on film even argues that Swartz may have simply wanted to analyse the documents for his own private study, as he had done this before. The U.S. Government and specifically their Justice Department took a hard-line stand against Swartz and filed initially four and then 13 felonies against him, citing their archaic Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This threatened Swartz with up to 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine. This was all looming over Swartz’s head when he died by his own hand on January 11 2013.
The Internet’s Own Boy is an unnerving, touching, provocative and outrageous film that will anger most viewers and cause them to ask lots of questions about society and governments. It is gripping, fast-paced, well-edited and researched and promotes the idea that there should be freedom in the digital world.
This documentary also highlights Swartz’s many achievements and argues that the technophobic American government got things wrong when they chose to prosecute and persecute this bright and determined computer genius. They claim that the government should’ve pursued the criminal masterminds behind the financial crisis that plagued the U.S. One thing this film doesn’t show is the opposing viewpoint to Aaron Swartz, but this is because his detractors declined to be filmed. Sadly, this omission only adds to the tragedy and heartbreak that is Swartz’s amazing, fascinating and inspirational story.
Originally published on 12 August 2014 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2014/08/12/film-review-the-internets-own-boy-the-story-of-aaron-swartz-usa-2014/
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