Documentary maker Brian Knappenberger would have been more than happy to tell both sides of the story surrounding the bright life and dismaying death of programmer, RSS creator, and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz. There was just one problem: The government officials who charged the hacker activist with 13 felony counts for downloading scholarly documents onto his laptop refused to be interviewed.
“I really did want to hear from the Department of Justice about why they felt it was so important to make Aaron a felon,” Knappenberger says. “When you look at the broad range of hacking activity–criminal gangs out of Russia, credit card theft, corporate espionage, cyber warfare with China–and then you look at what Aaron did, it’s like checking too many books out of the library.”
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, opening June 27 (and available that day on Vimeo on Demand), sheds light on the uncompromising genius beset in the last two years of his life by a crushing legal battle. Facing 35 years in prison, Swartz killed himself in Brooklyn on January 11, 2013, a few weeks after prosecutors added nine new counts to the original data theft charges.
Knappenberger, who earlier made We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, began shooting footage shortly after Swartz’s death when he shared a panel at the Social Computing Symposium in New York with the hacker’s shattered ex-girlfriend Quinn Norton. “Everybody at this conference was very somber,” Knappenberger recalls. “They all seemed to know Aaron and have a story about him. Even from people who’d never met Aaron there was this incredible outpouring of frustration. I wanted to get a sense of why his story resonated so much. Since I carry a camera with me almost everywhere I go, I started filming right there.”
Most of Swartz’s friends, family members, and colleagues were still grieving when they went on camera for The Internet’s Own Boy. But Knappenberger also excavated a happier chapter from Swartz’s life thanks to a trove of home movies kept by his parents.
Filmed in the suburban Chicago home where Swartz grew up with his two brothers, the amateur video shows Swartz as a self-taught three-year-old startling his parents by suddenly reading notes on the refrigerator door. Swartz built an ATM machine from scratch in grade school, created the GetInfo forerunner to Wikipedia at age 13, helped build the RSS Standard that serves as the structural backbone for World Wide Web Consortium at 14, and developed Creative Commons copyright innovations with Lawrence Lessig when he was 16 years old.
Swartz routinely stunned grown-up programmers when he’d show up at conferences chaperoned by his mother. Knappenberger says, “Aaron rejected that term ‘prodigy’ because I guess he didn’t want to be seen as special, but it’s clear he had an incredible aptitude that enabled him to participate in communities with people who were 30 and 40 years old, and they weren’t slouches either. He saw the early Internet as a meritocracy where, if you can do the work, then you’re valued for your contribution no matter who you are.”
Swartz had little patience for social conventions including school and work routines. He dropped out of high school but still got into Stanford University. Swartz co-founded Reddit, then sold the company with his partners to Conde Nast in 2006 for unspecified millions. As part of the deal, Swartz tried working in the company’s San Francisco headquarters.
“If you follow Aaron’s blog posts. the open office just drove him crazy,” Knappenberger says. “He felt like San Francisco and the startup world in general was a little vapid, like it was all about making money. The notion that you’re going to make the world a better place is something you hear all the time in the startup world but Aaron questioned that and said, “‘Really? Are you making the world a better place or are you just making things to waste people’s time? Do you know what made the world bad to begin with? If you genuinely make the world better how do you quantify that? How do you test the impact you’re having on the world?’ There’s a real sense that Aaron didn’t fit into that world.”
Swartz felt more at home as an activist than an entrepreneur. In California he mass-downloaded law review articles from the Westlaw legal database to document how corporate funding produces biased research.
Moving to the East Coast, Swartz downloaded 4.7 million files from the academic publisher. He was arrested after surveillance camera footage caught him swapping hard drives in the basement of an MIT building.
In the midst of his own legal battle, Swartz fought the passage of SOPA, widely seen as a threat to Internet free speech and innovation, by devising an ingeniously simple online form that triggered 1 million emails to Congress in a single day early in 2011 and led to the bill’s defeat.
Meanwhile, The Internet’s Own Boy details how F.B.I. and Secret Service agents went after members of Swartz’s inner circle. Knappenberger says, “They told Aaron’s father they wanted to make an example out of him, but an example of what? What kind of behavior were they trying to deter? The majority of Aaron’s activity was about social organizing and getting people involved in their government. The notion that Aaron was some sort of quasi-celebrity hacker who needed to be made an example of is absurd and unsophisticated.”
With Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations following six months after Swartz’s death, Kanppenberger believes the issues at play in The Internet’s Own Boy reflect a troubling trend. “There’s been a backlash in the last couple of years against hackers, activists, and even journalists,” he says. “The Obama administration has used this 1917 Espionage Act against journalists and whistleblowers more than all other American presidents combined.”
While prosecutors may have used antique laws against Swartz to intimidate other cyber-activists, Knappenberger hopes the message fails to connect. “The fight to suture traditional notions of civil liberties and values into this new world is really important,” he says. “Coders need to create interesting ways to keep people engaged politically and aware of what’s going on.”
In that respect, Knappenberger sees Swartz as a model 21st-century citizen. “Aaron had this ability to continually innovate and catch evil forces off guard.”