The Internet's Own Boy tells Aaron Swartz's sad tale

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A documentary by Brian Knappenberger. Rating unavailable.

Anyone with a glancing knowledge of the Internet’s recent history was shocked last year when Aaron Swartz—one of the web’s brightest flames to date—committed suicide at the age of 26. It’s widely accepted that the U.S. government hounded him to death, and The Internet’s Own Boy certainly takes that view. Despite heavy-handed moments, the film goes deeper than blanket assumptions, and shows how much we lost when that light went out.

This haunting Story starts with home movies of preschool Aaron (who taught himself to read at age three) playing teacher to his parents and two younger brothers. His knowledge often outstripped that of collaborators, such as the cocreators of the RSS system, surprised to discover that he couldn’t attend their face-to-face meetings because he was only 13. By the next year, however, chubby Aaron was attending national Net conferences, and as a slimmed-down, floppy-haired teenager he had a major hand in launching Reddit and Creative Commons, among myriad other websites and platforms.

He never really cashed in on all that. Instead, his passion was for unfettered access to what was supposed to be public knowledge, whether pertaining to legal records or scientific journals and papers, mostly funded by taxpayers but often held behind costly firewalls. One repository was the lucrative JSTOR trove, which Swartz was able to access for free while nominally studying at hack-happy MIT.

His intent was to grab all the data and post it for free, as discussed by copyright expert and sorrowful mentor Lawrence Lessig. Absurdly, Swartz was arrested for piracy and subsequently badgered by the famously corrupt Boston office of the FBI. Criminal charges against him kept multiplying, with massive jail time threatened, while JSTOR dropped all charges and MIT remained inexcusably mum.

Written and directed by Brian Knappenberger, who previously made docs on hackers and business innovators, the film suggests the feds knew little about Swartz when they grabbed him, but then grew incensed by his political activism through DemandProgress.org and his increasing public profile in fighting the government’s totalitarian impulses. This voice, clearly, was going to be much harder to smear than those of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. And then he was gone. Even under an allegedly liberal regime, free speech can be very expensive indeed.

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