As part of the ongoing news headlines surrounding technology and civil liberties comes Brian Knappenberger’s excellent, maddening, and must-see documentary, “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.” Chronicling the life and death of tech genius and social activist, Aaron Swartz, “The Internet’s Own Boy” illustrates how devastating the U.S. Justice System can be when cracking down on an individual to prove a point. The film also points out how little is understood about civil liberties when it comes overseeing (or policing) the internet.
Aaron Swartz was born in 1986, and early on exhibited intellectual abilities far above his age. He was reading at three (self-taught), and was immediately comfortable with playing on the computer. At 14 he was part of the core group that developed RSS. At 18, he dropped out of Stanford (not enough an intellectual atmosphere) and joined the start-up world co-creating Infogami that later merged with Reddit. Reddit was then acquired by Conde Nast Publications owners of Wired Magazine. Swartz worked at Wired, but hated the office life/politics.
Taking a step away from the money-making side of the programming, Swartz’s passion turned towards freedom of information. In 2008, he created OpenLibrary.org which gave users access to the free public library of books. Swartz also thought that pubically filed court documents should be available to all and downloaded 20 million pages from the online service PACER, which charged for views.
But it was when Swartz started tangling with MIT and its academic database JSTOR (a site that published and sold studies) that things became messy. Swartz was monitored and eventually arrested and his legal troubles escalated. He became the poster child for the government prosecutors in cracking down on potentially “dangerous” hackers.
Acclaimed documentary director Knappenberger, whose earlier documentary, “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists” also delved into the conflict between the government and the hacker-activist group Anonymous, brings to the forefront Swartz’s ambitions, frustrations, and conflicts with the Federal government that led to his untimely death (by suicide at age 26). Utilizing interviews from family, friends, tech experts, as well as news and video interviews from Aaron Swartz himself, Knappenberger does a skilled job in constructing Swartz’s life as a programming prodigy, as well as explaining his technical feats. Most will be astonished by the unjust hand of law Swartz received from Federal prosecutors.
Director Knappenberger in his film’s production notes explains that “[Aaron’s] loss shows us what we lose when we are tone deaf about technology and its relationship to our civil liberties, but it also shows us how we can do better.” This is why “The Internet’s Own Boy” is so important – it keeps alive the very necessary discussion about civil liberties surrounding the internet as well as asks the public to be more involved.
Premiering at Sundance Film Festival as well as screening at SXSW Film Festival and as opening night film at Hot Docs, “The Internet’s Own Boy” hits Los Angeles Friday, June 27 at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas as well as premiering on multiple platforms of VOD.
Special Filmmaker Event: on Friday, 6/27 and Saturday, 6/28, director Brian Knappenberger will have a Q&A session after the 7:30 p.m. screenings at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas.