Compelling, terrifying and timely, The Internet’s Own Boy highlights the tragedy of Aaron Swartz’s death and the brutish power of the US Government in the face of political activism.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Freedom of Information Fighter by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
If the past eighteen months are anything to go by, the field of investigative filmmaking has never been so vibrant, slipping issues as diverse as the plight of orca whales in captivity, the Egyptian revolution and Indonesian mass murder into our collective consciousness. Argentine director Raymundo Gleyzer once said “We think of film as a bullet that ignites consciousness. We must serve as the stone that breaks silence…” And the most effective documentaries do just that; enlighten and inspire, often coaxing us from the comfort of our own ignorance. Director Brian Knappenberger’s The Internet’s Own Boy is a rousing film that celebrates the noble yet inadvertent heroics of one man passionate about freedom, and represents a sobering indictment on the inaction of too many.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the film chronicles internet pioneer and activist Aaron Swartz’s story from child programming prodigy to his untimely death by suicide at 26. Responsible in part for the development of basic internet protocol RSS, Swartz went on to become a co-founder of Reddit and Creative Commons. In 2011 Swartz was arrested by MIT police on Massachusetts breaking-and-entering charges having systematically downloaded over four million academic articles from online digital library JSTOR. Federal prosecutors later charged him with two counts of wire fraud and eleven violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Despite the threat of life imprisonment, Swartz’s passion for social and political activism was unfettered and he was instrumental in the campaign to prevent passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
Using home video of Aaron Swartz as a child – as well as recent interviews with family, friends and colleagues – The Internet’s Own Boy is an intimate insight into the life of the internet pioneer and social activist many of us would have only known through news reports. Precocious and fiercely intelligent as a child, early footage of him is both heartbreaking and illuminating when paralleled to an older Swartz rallying supporters or lecturing his peers on open access. The film is shot and scripted with an economy that belies the complexity of the narrative, elegantly highlighting the audacity and fearlessness of a man who felt passionately about freedom and transparency. The film captures the essence of the enigmatic Swartz and emphasises his infectious passion and knowledge. In a pre-Edward Snowden world for instance, we see a younger Swartz questioning the level of surveillance performed by the NSA.
On the film’s Kickstarter page, Knappenberger said “A lot has been written…some of it very good, but I felt taken as a whole it represented a fractured picture of him”. And despite his worthy efforts, the picture of Aaron Swartz remains somewhat fractured. While the film celebrates and furthers Swartz’s undeniable legacy – and rightly so – it fails to give any meaningful credence to Swartz’s ongoing battle with depression. As if to avoid muddying the waters of historical record, Knappenberger delicately sidesteps any question of its contribution to his death. It could be argued that it bears no significance to a film that celebrates Swartz’s life, but it feels like a missed opportunity in completing the picture of a brilliant, but troubled man.
The Internet’s Own Boy is an unsettling and inspirational documentary. It champions the necessity of the Snowden’s and Swartz’s of the world and will serve to inspire others to stick their head above the parapet of inequity. Most of all, the film is damning in its portrayal of the politically motivated bullishness of Federal prosecution and the failure to utilise appropriate prosecutorial discretion. Brian Knappenberger’s film celebrates Aaron Swartz’s life, achievements and sacrifices, and beautifully illustrates the lasting impact of his legacy.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is released on 29th August 2014 in the UK