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.