A moving memorial to Internet whiz kid Aaron Swartz, “The Internet’s Own Boy” may be the most emotionally devastating movie ever made about hacking and freedom of information. Documentarian Brian Knappenberger creates a spellbinding portrait of Swartz’s life and political convictions — the promise of which was cut short by his suicide in early 2013 at the age of 26 — while posing powerful intellectual arguments about failures in the U.S. justice system, especially when it comes to the World Wide Web. Since Swartz has already been canonized online, there’s likely a substantial audience ready and waiting for a well-crafted tribute doc. The more salient question in the age of Internet piracy may be whether they’re willing to pay to watch it.
The circumstances surrounding Swartz’s death remain shrouded in a degree of mystery, but the political activist and co-founder of social news site Reddit hung himself just two days after federal prosecutors declined a plea bargain from Swartz’s defense attorney in an ongoing case. Swartz was charged with 11 violations of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for mass-downloading millions of documents from JSTOR, a subscription-based digital library of academic journals and materials, by plugging a laptop directly into MIT’s network. If convicted, he would have faced up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Whether or not Swartz’s crimes merited such intense scrutiny from the Justice Dept. is one of the film’s hot topics, and there’s no doubt where Knappenberger’s allegiances lie. His film builds a credible argument that the case against Swartz was more about deterrence than punishment. The goal was to send a message to hacktivists everywhere, who — at the time of WikiLeaks and the explosion of Anonymous — were becoming a growing concern for the government. Swartz’s crimes were dubious, no one even knows what he actually intended to do with the documents he was downloading, and JSTOR ultimately dropped the charges against him. But the government pressed on. What the prosecutors surely never expected was that rather than becoming a cautionary tale, Swartz’s death would transform him into a martyr for a cause and a symbol of the fight for free information in the digital age.
Through a mix of talking-head interviews and archival footage, Knappenberger gives audiences an accessible but never tedious primer on Swartz’s major tech accomplishments, while irresistible homevideos reveal his auspicious beginnings as a child prodigy (he started using a computer at age 2 or 3). But the most powerful takeaways involve what Swartz was fighting for and how he was fighting for it. Swartz had the ideas and the ingenuity to become another tech billionaire, but he committed himself instead to the causes of social justice, freedom of information and the fight for transparency in government. Multiple TV news interviews from before his death demonstrate Swartz’s ability to speak eloquently on the intersection of politics and technology, and several interview subjects — including an ex-girlfriend — believe he might have eventually pursued a political career.
While the film borders on hagiography, we get a small sense of Swartz’s inner demons and his lifelong feeling of being a social outcast. The closest anyone comes to criticism is when one of his brothers calls him a “twerp,” but the celebration of what Swartz accomplished never feels forced or inauthentic. Instead, “The Internet’s Own Boy” is a beautifully crafted film that opens a window on a world not everyone has entered yet, and exposes ways in which both the legal system and the U.S. government is lagging hopelessly behind technology.