January 11th marked the first anniversary of Aaron Swartz’s death. As an inventor, a coder, and an activist, Swartz had an outsized impact on the world before he died at the age of 26. In his short life, he helped to shape the modern internet by developing RSS, Creative Commons licenses, and Reddit. But he also spent the last two years of his life fighting a legal case that stemmed from his copying millions of documents from a digital library. Depressed and facing 35 years in prison, Swartz committed suicide in his Brooklyn apartment.
A compelling new feature documentary
Swartz’s story was widely chronicled in real time, including here on The Verge. Now his life and death are being profiled in a compelling new feature-length documentary. The Internet’s Own Boy, directed by Brian Knappenberger (We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists) represents an effort to bring Swartz’s story to a wider audience, one that is less steeped in the fight for unfettered access to information. The film, which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival, personalizes the story in part by introducing us to Swartz’s parents and brothers. Like many of us, they are still struggling to understand what happened to Aaron — and whether any positive change can result from the tragedy.
A day after the film’s premiere, I met with Swartz’s father, Bob, and his brothers, Noah and Ben. A year later, their grief is still raw: the family dutifully answers my questions, but at times they look as if they would rather be anywhere else. They agreed to participate in the film and to promote it at Sundance to draw attention to Aaron’s case. It is a story that raises questions about the US criminal justice system, prosecutorial discretion, and the threats posed by expanded government monitoring and control over the internet.
“Everyone can do something to help,” Noah Swartz says, grabbing a seat at the Wasatch Brew Pub in downtown Park City. (No one present is drinking anything stronger than water.) “People should remember they can go support the EFF, and go look at the things they’re working on and contribute. There’s tons of these organizations, and tons of new ones sprouting up — to help with encryption, tech activism, law reform. People should seek them out.”
"Everyone can do something to help."
While they have come to talk about their brother’s work, Ben and Noah grow most animated while talking about his personality. They still marvel at his workaholism. Ben recalls making lunch plans with Aaron and arriving on time at his apartment only to find his brother alone in his room with the door closed, working on a project. “He’d say ‘Oh, give me 20 more minutes,’” Ben says. “I would sit in the living room and wait for him.”
Noah recalls frequently bringing potential projects to Aaron’s attention, only to learn his brother had already investigated them and decided to tackle the same idea from a different approach. “I could never get him interested in the things I was interested in,” Noah says, laughing. “He was always two steps ahead.” On the other hand, his devotion to activism could also isolate him. “He felt very strongly that he should be productive all the time,” Noah says. “I’d say, come hang out. And he’d say ‘Yeah, but I’d rather be writing this email to this senator.’”
Beside us sat Knappenberger, whose previous film profiled the hacktivist collective Anonymous. He is deeply interested in the political dimensions of Swartz’s life, and as a result The Internet’s Own Boy sometimes veers toward agitprop — Knappenberger interviews a host of Swartz’s supporters, and just one person who says the government’s case against him had merit. (The prosecutors declined his interview requests.) It also avoids discussion of Swartz’s history of depression, which others who knew him have said played a role in his suicide.
But the movie effectively traces Swartz’s path from programming prodigy to startup wunderkind to outspoken internet activist. Drawing on home movies, photographs, and video clips from his many television appearances, The Internet’s Own Boy captures Swartz’s charisma in a way that his many obituaries have struggled to do. And after he is arrested for downloading articles from the digital archive JSTOR, his treatment at the hands of the government manages to infuriate all over again.
It will infuriate you all over again
Knappenberger says he wanted to weave together the many threads of Swartz’s life into a portrait that would resonate with a broader audience. “There was a huge outpouring of anger and frustration when Aaron died,” he says. “We all felt it, and we read everything we could read about it. But I felt like it was fractured. It was small glimpses. Unpacking it in a way that tells the whole pictures is something that we really needed.” If he succeeds, he says, he’ll have created “something that can be accessible to audiences far beyond the internet world.”
The film also describes efforts to pass Aaron’s Law, which would reform the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act under which Swartz was prosecuted. But Congress is slow to act in the best of times, and the Swartz family says that revelations about the National Security Agency by former contractor Edward Snowden have killed any appetite for showing leniency for computer crimes. Still, the Swartzes say they will continue their efforts. “It looks like there may be some forward progress,” Bob Swartz says. “But getting anything but a budget through Congress is hard.”
In the meantime, the family continues to find new ways to honor Aaron’s life. Noah is organizing global hackathons to encourage work on projects reflecting his brother’s ideals. And Knappenberger will honor Swartz in a different way — the film will eventually be released under a Creative Commons license.
All of which is cold comfort, of course. Aaron Swartz is gone, and the story of his final months still has the power to infuriate a year later. But the internet he helped to shape, and the activism he inspired, is more central to the public consciousness than ever. It is perhaps the only affirming truth in the whole tragedy.