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Note: This post may contain spoilers.
Aaron Swartz’s death prompted collective mourning on social media in January 2013. Brian Knappenberger’s The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz recounts his life, his advocacy, and his troubles.
Swartz was a wunderkind. As a young teenager, he explained the Internet and its implications to large audiences. He co-founded Reddit, worked on RSS, developed a Wikipedia-like site, and developed the computer side of the Creative Commons, among many other projects.
He was passionate about copyright and knowledge access, a key question in today’s era of content monetization of public access documents. He hacked into PACER, a system that locked up court documents that previously were available for free. He also hacked into JSTOR, a massive collection of academic articles, an action that got him in trouble with the U.S. judicial system and brought about overreaching federal charges from a system that wanted to make an example of him. Swartz’s campaign against SOPA resulted in a large blackout of major websites and an eventual dropping of the bill.
Knappenberger’s documentary brings together an impressive array of interviews from Swartz’s family and personal life and from the Internet community. He weaves home video footage of a teenaged Swartz delivering talks to large audiences about technology and its implications, and other archival footage and photographs from his personal and media expert roles.
Along with the story of Swartz’s life, this documentary’s strength is the explanation of the court case, its developments, and its implications. Even after the owners of JSTOR announced their stopping of pursuing the case, the Federal investigation persisted, and it ended with 13 charges, a huge fine, and a long jail sentences.
Within that picture emerges a call for action to revise the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which federal prosecutors used to increase the charges and fines against Swartz. Aaron’s Law Act was introduced in June 2013 but remains in committee more than a year later.
Sometimes who fails to appear in a documentary is just as interesting as those who do.
Knappenberger uses a strategy of pointing out all the people who refused requests, including officials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his Reddit co-founders, and the Boston prosecutor.
The Internet’s Own Boy is an excellent documentary of a brilliant mind gone too soon and of an attempted prosecution gone too far.