The Internet both defined and was defined by Aaron Swartz.
The new documentary The Internet’s Own Boy tells Swartz’s story, from his involvement with the development of Web protocol RSS and his cofounding of the social news website Reddit to the political advocacy and Internet activism that defined him later in life. The film, directed by award-winning filmmaker Brian Knappenberger (We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists), also explores the events that led up to Swartz’s suicide in 2013.
Swartz was accused of illegally using Massachusetts Institute of Technology computers to hack into the academic database JSTOR, from which he copied some 4.8 million articles as a protest against the commercialization of intellectual pursuit. The Secret Service investigation and a federal prosecution that critics contend was unnecessarily aggressive drove the precocious programmer to suicide at just 26 years old.
Knappenberger takes an uncompromising look at the prosecution’s tactics and the effect they had on Swartz and the future of information access on the Internet.
Knappenberger spoke with us last week from Toronto, where he was showing his film at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
TakePart: What was it about Aaron’s story that inspired you to make this film?
Brian Knappenberger: I think Aaron’s story is compelling for lots of different reasons. My previous film We Are Legion followed hackers and activists, so I was following Aaron’s story right from when he was arrested. He was so deeply engaged in so many issues that are really relevant about information, our relationship with information, the way the Internet is changing, and the freedoms of the Internet. And then I was struck by how much his story resonated with people far beyond the communities in which he was a celebrity—people that didn’t even know him. There was this kind of wave of anger and frustration that happened after he died. I just found the story a really interesting, personal way to get into these issues that we care about.
As a human race we are facing big intractable problems that we’ve never faced before, and the only way we solve those problems is to come armed with the truth unsullied by political power and unstained by corporate greed.- Brian Knappenberger
Why is the topic of Internet activism important enough to you to devote years of your life to it?
Knappenberger: I think that the hacking community is engaged in a relentless pursuit of the truth. They seem to have very low tolerance for nonsense or lies. They break these walls of deception. We need the truth, whether that’s the truth of the universe in the form of science, knowledge, and research—the kind of things that Aaron was after—or whether that’s the truth of our actual relationship with our government as opposed to the relationship we think we have with our government. A big piece of that puzzle was just missing before Edward Snowden came forward. In either case, I think that as a human race we are facing big intractable problems that we’ve never faced before, and the only way we solve those problems is to come armed with the truth unsullied by political power and unstained by corporate greed. It’s the only way we make lives better for people around the world. It’s the only way we deal with problems like climate change, and it’s the only way we ultimately figure out how best to govern ourselves.
One of Aaron’s ex-girlfriends, Quinn Norton, gave you your title, calling Aaron during one of your interviews with her “the Internet’s own boy.” What do you think she meant by that, and why did you choose that phrase for your title?
Knappenberger: I think she meant that he quit school and sort of self-taught at home, and then he became involved with Internet dignitaries, these people that were legends of the Internet. He grew up on the Internet and the culture and was embraced by the Internet free culture movement. His mom would take him around to various conventions so he could be on various panels. He would go to meet with all these people that were much older than him, and he would kind of school them on ways of doing things. The full quote from Quinn is that “He was the Internet’s own boy, but the old world killed him.” And so it just struck me as a particularly poignant way of understanding where Aaron came from and ultimately what led to his demise.
How did Aaron’s quest for freedom of information shape the future of the Internet?
Knappenberger: Aaron was shaping the Internet from a very young age. His early work with RSS—he was contributing heavily to that—he was contributing to the architecture of Creative Commons, cofounder ultimately of Reddit. He shaped the Internet free culture movement as a very young person, but ultimately this kind of shift that he took toward political activism really shaped it in a way that I think is incredibly relevant for our time as we battle with state surveillance and net neutrality laws. He was ahead of the game, and he understood that it was more than just coding.
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More than a year after Swartz’s death, questions about MIT’s handling of the hacking case persist. Many have argued that MIT should have done more than merely remain neutral during the prosecution. What are your thoughts on this?
Knappenberger: MIT has come under lots of criticism with the way that they handled this case, and I think that some of it is very much justified. MIT has a long history of very much celebrating people who push the boundaries—including of the law. There’s a tradition of putting cars up on the dome of MIT, there’s doing all kinds of pranks—taking school furniture and gluing it to a roof above the archway outside, playing Tetris with the lights in a building. MIT traditionally embraces this pushing the boundaries, this edge of creativity. When someone like Aaron comes along, and they just kind of back off, and they just throw their hands up and say, “We’re being neutral here”—I think that’s a problem. Neutrality is a problem. As Gabriella Coleman said in our film: “They had the moral authority to stop this in its tracks or to at least give this some perspective.” And perspective is what this case badly needed. So their position is baffling, and I think that they have a lot of soul searching to do to figure out how exactly this went so wrong and so contrary to what they presumably stand for.
What do you want people to take from this film?
Knappenberger: [Aaron saw himself] as somebody who was interested in what was wrong with the Internet and was trying very hard to fix it—in other words, to participate, to stand up and use whatever skills he had and whatever skills anybody has in order to make the world a better place. Active participation in the things you care about. This is something that comes up time and time again in the interviews I had with people that knew him—this notion that you can use your skills to change the world. You don’t have to be a child prodigy programmer—you don’t even have to be a programmer—whatever your skills are, you can make a difference.
This article was created in association with the social action campaign for The Internet’s Own Boy, which is being released by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, and filmbuff.