“I recommend The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz for its stunning amount of knowledge and clarity, emphasizing significant parts and its constant desire to paint Swartz as a character clearly troubled by mass amounts of attention, despite that part coming with his territory.”
by Steve Pulaski
When I saw Brian Knappenberger’s documentary We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivist, I was shocked raw, which is an uncommon reaction after viewing someone’s directorial debut. I was mesmerized by the film’s information and its aesthetic neatness in summarizing the messy internet movement of “hacktivism” over recent years, so much so that not only did I feel like a better person upon viewing the film, I used the film and its points as a thesis for my presentation in my high school sociology course concerning hacktivism (which ran over thirty minutes). Knappenberger’s film was an extraordinary documentary that beautifully summarized an online campaign, I believe, was just getting started.
Knappenberger returns with another powerful film as his sophomore effort, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, concerning the titular computer programming pioneer, who helped co-found numerous websites, including the popular “front page of the internet” Reddit, before finding himself wrapped up in vague and stressful criminal lawsuits and his suicide in 2013. Swartz was twenty-six when he killed himself, but with that, left behind an indelible legacy on the internet and its community, building small, simple websites with big, global purposes, and, through each and every day, questioning what he could do to make the world a better placed and questioning why there were so many not doing such a thing.
The film focuses on Swartz, at first, through humble beginnings, showing home-video of an overactive youngin and his mischievous siblings causing havoc in their living room. Most surprising is how Swartz interacts with these videos, being didactic and educational, teaching the viewer of these videos how to read or how to say the ABC’s backwards. Swartz’s desire to educate and teach became a thesis for his work in his later life, as he created a website when he was twelve-years-old, dedicated to the solicitation and creation of information from people like you and I (a shocking precursor to the fifth most popular website on the internet, Wikipedia).
Swartz would continue this uncommonly ambitious string of website-creation, which would lead him to be involved with numerous different websites and organizations. At a young age, Swartz latched onto the early stages of the debate with online piracy/copyright infringement, where age-old laws were clashing with contemporary ideas brought forth on the internet. With this, Swartz thought that there should be copyright laws, but also found that the internet should be untouched by governments and corporate forces looking to slant the web for personal gain, censor it for added greed, or limit what could be said for self-interest.
Swartz found himself in trouble when he became connected with internet “hacktivist” Carl Malamud and his operation to make PACER a free and open exchange of legal documents. For those unaware, PACER is an online-archive that gathers all the legal documents for court cases that are easily searchable for the common man. The issue is that a credit card charge is implemented to view any of these documents, when, in reality, taxpayers have indirectly paid for the release of these documents, which is precisely why they’re gathered so neatly on a website to begin with. Malamud, Swartz, and several other thoughtful young hacktivists found this charge ridiculous, which lead Malamud to create a “recycled” PACER website, which would gather the court documents people already legally paid for on one site in one convenient and, above all, free place. After the website received two million unique documents, Swartz found himself under investigation from the FBI, which began a downward legal spiral for the young and ambitious whiz-kid.
Swartz later involved himself in a massive undertaking with the online service JSTOR, a website which houses countless documents, boasting scientific or humanitarian significance, with the sole purpose for them to be provided to whoever asks for them…for a price. Being that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) allows students to access JSTOR documents for free, one day, Swartz took his laptop and began downloading every document available on the JSTOR website, after creating a simple but powerful code on his computer. This laptop was stored in an MIT technology closet while Swartz went about his daily life; what he planned to do with those files, to this day, is unknown and widely disputed. When the authorities discovered the laptop in the closet, they didn’t unplug it nor did they stop the rogue downloading. Instead, they rigged cameras in the closet for evidence against Swartz, which would ensue a tireless legal battle of epic proportions for the twentysomething prodigy.
Seeing all the things Swartz managed to accomplish by his adolescent years made me sad to think I spent my early days on the web, around age eight or nine, acquainting myself with AOL Music, learning the editing/browsing ropes of Wikipedia, writing music reviews on iTunes, and watching/organizing Youtube videos. Swartz managed to captivate, mystify, and amaze with simple but groundbreaking ideas that would offer a whirlwind of creative good for the world, fundamentally changing everything we came to know about the world and its functionality.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz works to paint a beautiful and elaborate man far too few people knew of, profiling its subjects roles in protests such as the public outcry against dangerous congressional legislation like the Stop Online Piracy Act and the unforeseen consequences that could amount from a government overstepping its digital boundaries, whatever those may be. It is another film in the long line of documentaries about the internet and its freedom, along with Knappenberger’s previous documentary effort and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, documentarian Alex Gibney’s layered film about Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks scandal.
I recommend The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz for its stunning amount of knowledge and clarity, emphasizing significant parts and its constant desire to paint Swartz as a character clearly troubled by mass amounts of attention, despite that part coming with his territory. He was the very definition of an “introverted extrovert,” somebody who inherently put himself out in the public eye, but who was a very quiet, nervous person, who dealt with copious amounts of stress after the impact of far-reaching and questionably unfair lawsuits. If all goes well, the film will merit an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature and place Knappenberger alongside people like Errol Morris or the aforementioned Gibney as some of the most significant documentarians working today.
Note: Through a method fully embracing Swartz’s ideology, the full version of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is attached to this article and can be viewed free of charge.