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Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger knew within a week of Aaron Swartz’s suicide that he would make THE INTERNET’S OWN BOY: THE STORY OF AARON SWARTZ, a film about this remarkable young man’s even more remarkable life and tragic death. When I spoke with him on June 13, 2014, I was curious about why Swartz’s family would entrust Knappenberger not only with their son’s public story, but also with the home movies and personal memories they had of him.
Within five minutes of starting the interview, I understood exactly why they would.
Knappenberger, whose previous work includes a terrific doc about Hacktivism (WE ARE LEGION: THE STORY OF THE HACKTIVISTS) is a man on a mission of his own to educate the public about the issues surrounding the law and free internet access. And so was Aaron. Our conversation covered the government prosecution of Aaron for downloading academic documents that were available for sale, and how that action was a perfect example of technology outstripping legal definitions and boundaries.
Aaron, who had previously downloaded legal documents en masse and, as a result, found troubling correlations between legal rulings and corporate sponsorship, was treated, from a prosecutorial standpoint, as though he were stealing credit card numbers, and the prospect of a long jail term, and being banned from the internet proved to be too much for him. Knappenberger notes in our interview the loss to the world of such a mind, the short-sightedness of the legal process, and of political ambitions that formed the perfect storm of Aaron’s case.
We also covered why budget-cuts led to legislators passing laws without understanding the implications of what they were doing, and how Aaron’s release of information led directly to a life-saving breakthrough.
THE INTERNET’S OWN BOY is a film about genius, hubris, and who controls information. Swartz was a programming genius and activist who, among other things, developed internet protocols still in use today, co-founded Reddit, which is still going strong today, and took it upon himself to fulfill the internet’s promise of free access to information, including stopping the passage of SOPA in Congress. His work as a programmer brought him accolades before he could vote, and his work as an activist brought him to the attention of public prosecutors and the FBI, who were determined to enforce out-of-date laws governing fair internet use, as well as prosecuting Aaron for crimes that were not even that clearly defined. The toll of government indictments and the prospect of prison eventually led to Swartz committing suicide as the age of 26, an act that deprived the world of one of its most dynamic and original thinkers. Told through the reminiscences of family and friends, all still fiercely loyal to Aaron, the film considers more than just the life of this vibrant, impatient genius, but also the clash between public and private interests, as well as the struggle between tech advancements and laws and lawmakers who have trouble keeping up with those advancements.