Now out in public view, following a festival push (alas, just a few awards), including Sundance, Seattle, Hot Docs, AFI DOCS, and Nantucket, filmmaker Brian Knappenberger again takes on the world wide collection of tubes and pipes that was the focus of his earlier documentary “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists” (2012), with a damn-the-persecutors examination of the terribly unfortunate and definitely preventable death of Aaron Swartz. The suicide of the Highland Park native in January 2013 came in the aftermath of trumped up charges filed two years earlier by federal prosecutors. “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” builds a strong case against the American government, whose insatiable ability to continually undermine its basic democratic principles caused the sad demise of one of the internet’s great heroes.
For the uninformed amongst you, Swartz was a bright, curious child prodigy who, as a geeky youngster, helped to create the RSS feed format, the alt-copyright organization Creative Commons, and the social news website Reddit. He was a master computer programmer turned social activist, and was particularly involved with the group Demand Progress, which helped defeat another of the U.S. government’s misguided bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act. He joined the outrage started by Carl Malamud of Public.Resource.org over PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), a vast collection of copyright-free federal court documents that many (at least in this film) felt should be free, but for which the Administrative Office of the United States Courts charged 8 cents a page (and made an illegal fortune doing so). Swartz cleverly exposed one of the PACER’s electronic loopholes, and was able to download nearly 20 million pages of text and release them online. Cue the FBI stakeouts at Aaron’s parents house back in Illinois. Let the paranoia begin. In 2010, he felt the need to liberate the locked-up academic journal articles in the digital repository JSTOR. He hacked into that network through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology network, and it was that intrusion that would ultimately led to his arrest.
Knappenberger covers the Swartz story with the family’s gracious support, as his brothers and parents provide loving and insightful talking head commentary, often over adorable home movies and photos. And there are plenty of cute stories about Aaron’s learning proclivities at a very young age, especially in respect to the internet. At the age of twelve, he had the idea for Wikipedia long before that website came into existence. Layer on some of the many other folks who were influenced by Swartz, including author Cory Doctorow, Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Peter Eckersley, and Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, as well as heartfelt chats with two of Aaron’s girlfriends and his attorney Elliot Peters, coupled with footage of Swartz at various forums or being interviewed (some from other documentaries in which he appeared). Toss in some clean, Ken Burns-style editing, bright graphics, an unobtrusive yet stirring score, comedy from John Stewart, and presto, you have a sympathetic tale of intellectual awakening and an advocacy circus guaranteed to make your blood slowly boil.
There’s also plenty of frank discussion about the field I’m in for a living: Copyright. The ever-eloquent Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, a co-founder of Creative Commons (if you use Flickr, there are hundreds of millions of photos there with CC licenses), expounds on his legal philosophies—and how his good friend, the then 15-year-old Aaron, approached these from within his computer-sphere and ever-growing moral center. The lad’s timeline is exposed for us to follow, with brief stops at Stanford University (2004-2005), Boston (where, at age 18 or so, he started infogami, a web-building company that merged into the anything-goes website Reddit), San Francisco (2006—a disastrous attempt to comply with Reddit’s new owner Conde Nast and its suffocating corporate agenda), and then back to Boston (starting with a fellowship at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics).
If you’re looking for any accountable responses, the entities getting bashed here declined to be interviewed for the film. Not Conde Nast. Not JSTOR (which actually decided not to prosecute). Not nerd-central MIT. Not the Department of Justice. Not the politically ambitious Steve Heymann, then an assistant U.S. Attorney who engineered the JSTOR fiasco (and already had a history of having one suspect under his investigation commit suicide in an earlier hacker case) and just wanted to to make this a case of “deterrence” using the outdated Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that Congress originally enacted in 1986, inspired by the movie “War Games,” the 1983 science-fiction film it apparently mistook to be a documentary.
Aaron’s eagerness with which he devoured knowledge, his aptitude in finding unorthodox solutions that could tear down stifling cultural and social brick walls, and his fierce devotion to exposing the system for all its inadequacies and injustices, found its match in the great Boogeyman Bureaucrat, an amalgam of unbending corporate and government apparatchiks. The sad, embattled soul of an outspoken visionary is laid bare in “The Internet’s Own Boy.”