Aaron Swartz was a programming prodigy and information activist who cofounded Reddit and RSS. But it was his fight for free speech and open access to information that was both his legacy and downfall.
Documentary filmmaker Brian Knappenberger wrote, directed and produced the “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.” It tells the riveting story of the tragically short life of Swartz, who hanged himself at the age of 26 last year.
Swartz hit his breaking point after becoming embattled in a lawsuit for two years. He was facing 35 years in prison. His crime? Swartz used Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computers to hack into JSTOR, the academic database. He copied 4.8 million articles and uploaded them for public access in protest of the commercialization of information on the Internet. He was arrested for wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Swartz’s story touched a nerve with people far beyond online communities. This film is a personal story about a very young man who was dedicated to fighting for our civil liberties.
Fresh from being a featured guest at Internet Week in New York City at the end of May, Knappenberger agreed to an exclusive interview.
Dorri Olds: Can you describe the aftermath for Aaron’s family and how they are coping with such a huge loss?
Brian Knappenberger: I would say they were a bit guarded. I began filming them less than a year after Aaron’s death. Different people deal with grief in different ways, but they were so supportive of me making the film, and I couldn’t have done it without them. I think for them it was a combination of pain but a belief that the film would be something Aaron would’ve wanted.
Why do you think MIT didn’t stand by Aaron and try to protect him?
There is a contradiction between MIT’s tradition of celebrating free thinkers and the way MIT behaved in Aaron’s case. MIT said they were neutral, but “neutral” really helped the prosecutors. They shared information with the prosecution that they didn’t share with the defense. They failed miserably at showing leadership in policy setting in the technological world. MIT has always encouraged pushing boundaries. The MIT media lab has been built on the idea that technology can disrupt the status quo in a positive way, and they’ve encouraged experimentation. They even have a scavenger hunt where students have to get into different servers. Aaron was doing something similar when he got into JSTOR and took data.
What scenes did you really like but had to cut from the film?
When you’re making a full-length feature film, you have to cut lots of things. One of the things about Aaron’s life is it was so full; he was engaged in so many things. We focused on the case and big-picture issues. I would’ve loved on a big-picture way to explore the criminal justice system a little deeper; I mean, we certainly do that in the film, but these are really systemic problems that our criminal justice system has right now. I could make a whole new film about that.
Are you going to?
Yeah, and in fact, we’re making a bunch of public-service ads that drill down a little deeper into these issues. And on a more personal level, the notion of suicide. It would be nice to do something similar but to expand on that. Suicide is a big, big problem right now. The rates are through the roof, very high, especially among young men and women tend to die more frequently from suicide attempts. Suicide rates have been higher among the Top 5 percent of gifted people in whatever field they’re in — the arts or engineering. Just recently on May 13, Malik Bendjelloul, the Swedish filmmaker who directed “Searching for Sugar Man,” killed himself. He was only 36. So that’s another area I think we could explore more. Aaron’s story really goes into all of these other areas. We hope it sparks a broader, deeper discussion.
“The Internet’s Own Boy” is available in theaters and On Demand Friday, June 27.
Documentary, biography, crime. Not rated. 105 min.
Watch the trailer:
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.