Film Review: The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Tragic, maybe overly burnished portrait of online activist Aaron Swartz nevertheless turns his federal prosecution into a crisp indictment of government hypocrisy and intimidation.

Maybe it’s something about Boston. For the second time this summer we’re seeing a documentary hinging on bad behavior in the city’s federal law-enforcement community. Although Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger paints a damning portrait of prosecutor indiscretion, Brian Knappenberger’s melodramatic, idealistic The Internet’s Own Boy is more troubling. That could be because in Berlinger’s case, it’s hard to get worked up about the mishandling of a case against the screamingly guilty and murderous Bulger, whereas with Knappenberger the victim is a widely beloved 26-year-old Internet activist who hung himself, arguably after being zealously hounded by the government. That the film doesn’t quite prove, or try to prove, that (as one unseen voice has it) “[Swartz] was killed by the government,” it makes for disturbing viewing nonetheless.

Using a mix of home movies and warm interviews with his engaging family, Knappenberger shows Swartz as a preternaturally gifted kid of the kind who so often become folk-status heroes in the Internet age. Only his fame took him in different directions than the Gates, Jobs and Zuckerbergs of the world. By the time he was 19, he had already dropped out of Stanford and made a pile of money after co-founding the explosively popular online forum Reddit.

But instead of parlaying his early success into greater wealth and fame, Swartz turned to bettering society. Teaming up with the likes of World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee (whom he idealized for having given away his invention) and copyright innovator Lawrence Lessig—both of whom appear at length in the film—Swartz threw himself into a slew of projects to crack open access to publicly funded information held behind corporate paywalls. Like most crusaders and prodigies, he had a strong sense of his talents, and little patience for corporate or societal rules; his family speculates that he thought programming was “magic” and could solve anything. But unlike many of his netizen comrades, Swartz didn’t want to just sweep away analog systems like, say, government, he wanted to improve them. Hardly a typical Anonymous-allied libertarian demolisher, he was an actual political progressive who harnessed technology to more efficiently push causes through democratic channels. Unfortunately for himself, that drive to improve the world mixed with his rule-breaking hacker ethos in dangerous ways.

Swartz first came to the attention of authorities after he helped public-domain advocate Carl Malamud fight PACER, the system that charges arguably onerous fees for people to download government records, by uploading millions of pages of documents from the system. Then, while on a fellowship at MIT in 2010, Swartz hooked his laptop into JSTOR, an online repository that normally charges fees for academic articles, and downloaded massive amounts of documents. Knappenberger assembles a patchwork of interviewees to argue that it was never clear that Swartz had in fact broken any law, since he had a legitimate JSTOR account from MIT and had no plans to profit from the articles. But nevertheless, Swartz was ultimately charged with over a dozen federal indictments, threatened with 35 years in jail and up to $1 million in fines. In 2012, an increasingly paranoid and despondent Swartz hung himself.

It would be easy to dismiss Swartz’s partisans here as mushy-headed idealists, who believe that just because Swartz didn’t physically steal anything, he didn’t “really” break the law. While a lot of that double-standard talk gets thrown around in the film, Knappenberger makes a strong case that the federal prosecutor went after Swartz to make an example of a well-known activist who had once authored a “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto” that proclaimed “there is no justice in following unjust laws.” Lessig himself, one of many in the film with glowingly warm memories of Swartz—his ready smile in the many clips of him contrasts the troubled image shown in other sources, like Larissa MacFarquhar’s darker take last year in The New Yorker—makes a good case that the feds just saw an easy target. Many others are more simply enraged that the government threw so much weight into going after Swartz while barely prosecuting more important cases like the financial fraud that caused the Great Recession.

At many moments during The Internet’s Own Boy, Knappenberger loses the thread of his generally thoughtful and compelling story—namely, Swartz himself. It becomes so wrapped up in the issues that Swartz was compelled by (open access, anti-piracy legislation) that the man himself recedes into the glowing accolades of his friends, family and admirers. For an activist who prized openness above all, this muddying of the waters is a disservice, albeit a slight one.

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