The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz: Sundance Review
Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Brian Knappenberger tells the heartbreaking story of a tech wunderkind persecuted by the U.S. government.
PARK CITY, Utah -- All but a must-see for anyone who knows enough to care about the way laws govern information transfer in the digital age, Brian Knappenberger's The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is an inspiring account of the life of, and an infuriating chronology of the persecution of, one of the Internet's most impressive prodigies. As in his 2012 We Are Legion, the director makes technical and legal issues accessible to outsiders without dumbing them down. But where that film examined a group (the web-enabled activists known as Anonymous) many viewers were likely to find unsympathetic, this one champions a young man who is, at least from a distance, incredibly easy to like. The doc deserves widespread exposure, though drawing attention in a theatrical release may require very savvy marketing.
Swartz, who committed suicide last year under the strain of a highly dubious criminal prosecution, became a player in tech circles around the age of 13. Even earlier than that, he had hatched a Wikipedia-like project before such a thing existed. (A teacher told him the idea was stupid, but it won a prestigious award.) By the time he left high school, he'd left his mark on at least three important aspects of how today's Internet works. That included building the infrastructure for Creative Commons, the alternative-copyright scheme envisioned by activist and Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig. A few years later, he'd help develop Reddit, profit immensely from its sale to Conde Nast and get himself fired because he hated working in an office environment.
Footage of a teenage Aaron at big tech events shows a child being treated like an equal by established professionals; here, some recall their astonishment at learning that the collaborator they'd known only through online communication was so young. Not surprisingly, the boy genius had some social issues. Brother Noah lovingly describes him as "a twerp" who knew he was smarter than others and didn't try to hide it; his online journals acknowledge plenty of social alienation.
After bailing on the moneymaking side of technology just when others would have dug in, Swartz gave himself over to an assortment of "free culture" issues. The one that wound up getting him in trouble concerned the fact that an astonishing amount of publicly financed scholarships (as well as important ancient texts that have long been in the public domain) are controlled by for-profit companies who charge fees that make knowledge and even many technical laws that govern us inaccessible to the poor. Exploiting the fact that MIT's campus had free access to the JSTOR database of documents, Swartz set up a laptop there and began covertly downloading them in bulk. He didn't damage any equipment and didn't give or sell the files to anyone. But the perceived intent of his actions spooked the wrong people. He was already under FBI surveillance at that point, and soon after this data dump was discovered, the government charged him with four felony counts. Over a year later, after Swartz had led a shockingly effective protest against the ill-conceived antipiracy bill SOPA, prosecutors decided to add nine more felony counts, meaning he faced a possible 50 years in prison, all for making copies of scholarly journals.
The intricacies of just how wrong this was are well explained by Knappenberger's interviewees (Lessig being one of the most helpful). Swartz was being prosecuted under a comically antiquated law so broadly written that just about anybody who uses the Internet could be declared a criminal if a prosecutor felt like it. Swartz's family, girlfriends, friends and colleagues -- including author Cory Doctorow and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web -- speak to the effect this persecution had on the young man's psyche.
It's heartbreaking enough to see a man with such a brilliant mind and altruistic impulses collapse under the pressure he faced. But it's chilling to consider the idea, put forth convincingly by a few people here, that the destruction was intentional. Officials have admitted wanting to "make an example" of Swartz. Lessig points out that they just happened to target a kid with limited resources and no lobbyists working for him, while "example" prosecutions that might have been more useful -- of those responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, say -- have somehow never happened.
Production Company: Luminant Media
Director-Screenwriter: Brian Knappenberger
Executive producers: Brian Knappenberger, Charlie Annenberg
Directors of photography: Lincoln Else, Scott Sinkler
Music: John Dragonetti
Editors: Bryan Storkel, Michelle Witten, Andy Robertson, Jason Decker, Brian Knappenberger
Sales: Cinetic Media
No rating, 104 minutes