The Internet’s Own Boy

Brian Knappenberger’s film might easily be repurposed as a fictional political thriller, but it’s much scarier as a documentary. The subject of The Internet’s Own Boy is programmer and information activist Aaron Swartz, the Stanford dropout who helped found Reddit, helped defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act, helped develop the Creative Commons copyright system, and, while studying at Harvard, ran chillingly afoul of the federal government — by downloading journal articles from an academic database. No, that doesn’t sound at all like a crime worth millions in fines and decades in prison, but such was the threat Swartz faced. Certainly he’d embarrassed the government before, when exposing the racket by which it slurped up fees for online access to otherwise freely available public court documents. But no charges had come of that. Sneaking into an MIT server closet, on the other hand, set off an epic legal shitstorm, with devastating consequences. A brilliant but fragile young man, only just beginning to realize his progressive political aspirations, Swartz committed suicide last year at age 26. Public conversation about his life, and his death, will continue, but meanwhile The Internet’s Own Boy serves as a martyr’s memorial. A touch more critical distance might have allowed the possibility that pride drove Swartz as much as it drove the powerful enemies he made, which seems useful to consider when assessing his cultural legacy. It’s been said that prosecutors wanted to make an example of him, and in fact so does Knappenberger, by showing us how opacity in the name of security can and will become dangerously anti-democratic.