“If you had magical powers, would you use them to for good, or would you use them to make mountains of cash?” Aaron Swartz’s brother asks in Brian Knappenberger’s documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.” The question of whether this generation’s programming magicians will choose to use their power for purpose or profit reverberates throughout this film’s portrait of the eponymous late social activist. We often see stories of slight, sloppy-looking young coders like Swartz transformed into national icons by the tech industry, but rarely with such close attention to ethics. Knappenberger has delivered a film brimming with outrage, whose zeal becomes persuasive once Swartz takes on his activist mantle.
While “The Internet’s Own Boy” starts off formulaically, that’s mainly due to the nagging sense that we’ve seen this story before. Were it not for the pre-credits debrief on Swartz’s suicide just over one year ago, his childhood of auspicious promise might be that of any Silicon Valley tycoon. Swartz picked up computer skills before he could read, and while that might not be terribly unique these days, he taught himself to read at the age of three. Understandably, at the same time he was developing TheInfo.org , an open-access encyclopedia that was a precursor to Wikipedia, he struggled to conform to the social and educational curriculum at his elementary school just outside Chicago. Why learn one teacher’s version of history when you could read three different books on the subject and summarize the common threads for yourself? While this impatience with the systemic education would galvanize the development of RSS Standard, Swartz did not make for a particularly willing classroom contributor.
The film produces the requisite family videos to provide evidence of his endless curiosity and an amusing proclivity to teach his younger brothers everything he learned on his own, which to this day his siblings recall with a hint of annoyance. A clip from Aaron’s middle school years shows a chubby adolescent sitting on a panel, producing a strikingly mature vision of programming’s future; by high school he was helping his mentor, open-access activist Lawrence Lessig, launch Creative Commons. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College, Bill Gates out of Harvard. Swartz also left a Stanford University program for advanced younger students to answer the California siren call of startup culture and made a killing after selling Reddit to Condé Nast. But similarities between the path to Silicon Valley prestige and the rogue track Swartz struck out on his own ends here, where the film’s editing also picks up momentum and a cogent social critique begins to take shape.
The film finds its rhythm in familiar territory for Knappenberger, who depicted the internet’s bad boy group Anonymous in the 2012 documentary “We Are Legion: the Story of the Hacktivists.” Where that film made an “Oceans”-like caper of that group’s eccentric characters, “The Internet’s Own Boy” brings a moral imperative to the act of defiance that pushed Swartz into a judicial quicksand. It began with Carl Malamud’s “thumb drive challenge” to download massive numbers of documents from the government racket Pacer, an online catalog of public court records that requires users to pay to view open documents. While Malamud meant for the information heist to occur at Pacer’s few public sites, Swartz targeted academic journal catalog JSTOR. A surveillance camera caught him plugging his computer into a supply closet at the JSTOR-accessible MIT campus, kicking off a game of cat and mouse as the government sought to construct a “case of deterrence” from the incident and evidence curated from Swartz’s significant Internet presence.
For all his exposure in word and image on the Internet, few indications of inner turmoil have surfaced to explain Swartz’s final decisions. The most valuable subjects interviewed here, past girlfriends Quinn Norton and Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, offer glimpses into how the federal intimidation devastated Aaron’s hopes for the future. The FBI staked out his family’s home, and Swartz was placed in solitary confinement. Norton recalls walking past the White House with Swartz once four counts of felony became thirteen. He told her, “They don’t let anyone with a felony charge work there.” Even in the midst of national and personal victories for the freedom of the Internet, such as the end of SOPA, Swartz aspired to make a political impact.
But “The Internet’s Own Boy” does not dwell on Swartz’s suicide, preferring instead to channel this vision by supporting a bill to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) that slapped him with nine counts of felony. Occasionally the film’s case for reform mirrors the Swartz’s restless activism Swartz — honing in on the way his eyes blink rapidly, fixated on some unspecified point ahead, in the film’s found footage. The documentary’s most energetic sequence intercuts “WarGames” with an explanation of how the cult classic frightened Congress into passing the CFAA. “The Internet’s Own Boy” aspires to provoke Capitol Hill by educating its viewers to inspire questions. Questions for those revered leaders in Silicon Valley — and for a government whose restrictions of the internet have been applied with a sledgehammer, as one source of the film says, instead of a scalpel.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “The Internet’s Own Boy” will have to strategize on the theater circuit, for its highly specific story will most likely occupy only a niche market. Knappenberger’s previous film “We Are Legion” demonstrated hacker culture has an immense following, which should lead to healthy VOD returns. Whether those viewers will pay to watch when Knappenberger has pledged some form of Creative Commons licensing for the film is another story.