As an entrepreneur and Internet activist, Aaron Swartz accomplished more in his 26 years of life than most people do in an entire career.

His life and the months leading up to his suicide last year are the subject of a documentary entitled The Internet's Own Boy, which opens Friday. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, whose previous documentary We Are Legion focused on the hacktivist group Anonymous, the film received rave reviews at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Swartz's life is certainly a compelling story: he was a talented hacker so fiercely dedicated to the idea that information should be freely accessible that he was willing to break the law. But his story is a complicated one--plagued by depression and facing an almost certain conviction, Swartz decided to end his life. The documentary successfully portrays him as a victim of the system, someone who had to pay the price for advocating for change. But it also leaves open a number of important questions.

The Backstory

A programming prodigy, Swartz was one of the architects of Reddit, Creative Commons, and RSS feeds. He also co-founded the anti-censorship group Demand Progress, which helped prevent passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) by persuading websites including Google, Wikipedia, and Craigslist to go black for a day in protest of the legislation.

The first five minutes of the movie portray Swartz as a gifted thinker even as a young child. Home video footage captures his mother's amazement when, as a three-year-old, Swartz revealed he could read.

Through interviews with Swartz's family, friends, and mentors, the film brings out his "alpha-nerd" personality and chronicles his rapid ascension into the world of Internet stardom. As an entrepreneur, his first big payday came around the age of 20 when the wiki platform he started merged with Reddit and was purchased by Conde Nast. The deal netted Swartz an estimated $1 million.

While the film presents Swartz's passion for developing software and useful Web applications as an inspiration to entrepreneurs everywhere, it also conveys how strongly Swartz wound up rejecting the business world. He exited startup culture to focus on political activism. During the last years of his life, Swartz comes across a kindred spirit to Tim Berners, the man who invented the world wide web, but rather than profit from his creation, decided to give it away for free. 

Swartz's primary focus as an activist involved sharing the collective knowledge of the world with every visitor to the Internet. As one of his friends explains in the film, he wanted to make the world a better place by "bringing public access to the public domain."

Breaking the Law

Tragically, Swartz's noble desire to provide free and open access to information ultimately led to his downfall. In 2011, after illegally downloading millions of academic journal articles from the digital repository JSTOR, Swartz was arrested by MIT police and later indicted on felony charges. Federal prosecutors eventually filed additional felony counts that would have brought Swartz's maximum punishment to 50 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Two days after the prosecution denied Swartz's lawyer's second attempt at a plea bargain, Swartz committed suicide in Brooklyn.

Knappenberger's documentary exposes the federal prosecutors' overreaching efforts to punish Swartz for so-called hacking crimes despite the fact that both MIT and JSTOR declined to pursue civil litigation. Portraying Swartz as a kind of tech-savvy humanitarian, one of the points the documentary drives home is that Swartz's willingness to express his views publicly separated him from the clandestine nature of hacker culture.

"I feel very strongly it's not enough to live in the world as it is," Swartz says in one of his many public interviews, describing what to him was almost a moral imperative to improve access to public information. As his story shows, however, the democratization of technology is still not a clean, or even fair process. 

"When we turn armed agents of the law on citizens trying to increase access to knowledge, we've broken the rule of law," technologist Carl Malamud says at Swartz's memorial service. "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through continuous struggle."  

Open Questions

Ultimately, The Internet's Own Boy feels long at 105 minutes, if for no other reason that it dwells on the tragedy of Swartz's death while leaving some significant questions about his life unanswered, such as: What led him to break the law rather than advocate for change the way he did with other causes? What was the real cause for his depression and what prevented him from seeking help? What were his ultimate political and personal goals?  

Go watch the movie. Despite its weaknesses, it's worth seeing for the way it brings Swartz's gifted mind to life and exposes the broken laws that govern information in the digital age. 

Published on: Jun 27, 2014