The most powerful way to make sense out of a senseless death may well be to make an evocative documentary. “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” depicts the life of 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide last year after being threatened with the possibility of a 35-year prison sentence for downloading millions of academic papers from MIT, with no specific motive other than possibly releasing them into the public domain.

After showings at Sundance and SXSW, the film is now in limited theatrical release and also available for purchase and rental online (no, it’s not free; those cost $9.99 and $6.99, respectively).

Swartz was a self-taught programmer and activist who helped create the RSS feed format, Creative Commons copyright licensing, the community news site Reddit, and a successful Internet campaign against the proposed copyright law known as SOPA in 2012. His death in 2013 was a big shock to the tech community, making him a martyr for the cause of Internet freedom.

Those close to Swartz have placed some of the blame for his death on overzealous prosecutors and MIT’s handling of the affair. Documentary maker Brian Knappenberger brings that point of view to the film via interviews with Swartz’s family, friends and allies. But he fails to balance it by talking to the prosecutors involved, or representatives from MIT or academic archive JSTOR. He also depends a little too much on scenes of pouring rain and music cues to dictate emotion.

Still, this is an emotional story, and one worth watching. It’s a compelling look at Swartz’s evolution from a bright kid to a driven activist with prescient concerns about government surveillance and corruption.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz – Trailer from FilmBuff on Vimeo.


So, I'm supposed to pay $10 to view an Internet film about a guy who thought that things on the Internet are supposed to be free, and killed himself because others threatened to put him in prison for his thievery?


Film makers repeatedly asked prosecutors or someone representing them to be interviewed for the film. They would not respond to any attempts to contact them. As for Aaron's "crime" this was the equivalent to being caught going 10 miles over the speed limit and being charged with attempted murder. He was threatened with 50 years in prison and a $1 million fine for downloading academic papers in order to put them into the public domain where they belonged. In fact, the service that he downloaded from asked that he not be prosecuted and ended up putting 4.5 million documents into the public domain where they should have been all along. Aaron's "crime" would have netted him no financial gain under any circumstance. They estimated that the damages to the firm that held the papers was $50,000. Yet prosecutors insisted he plead guilty to federal charges which would have branded him a felon for the rest of his life. They drained his bank account. And they insisted on a prison term. Let's contrast this with the banking scandals occurring at roughly the same time. Bankers were found guilty of money laundering, rate fixing, fraud, etc., to the tune of billions for their own gain. Do you know how much time they spent in prison? Not one U.S. banker spent even one day in jail. And they were fined an amount that was less than the profits they made from their crimes. THAT my friend is how justice works when you are wealthy and have powerful corporate connections. When you are a poor, depressed, young man with no corporate connections, you are a sitting duck for any type of treatment a blood-thirsty, overzealous prosecutor wishes to dole out.


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