Brian Knappenberger on capturing the life and death of Aaron Swartz in The Internet’s Own Boy
In 1986, the U.S. Congress, spooked by the fictional film War Games — in which a hacker unwittingly almost kicks off the Third World War by breaking into NORAD’s supercomputer — enacted the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Nearly three decades later, that same anachronistic law became the basis of an overzealous prosecution and ultimate suicide of one of the online world’s most prodigious sons. In Hot Docs opening gala film The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, director Brian Knappenberger recounts this tragic tale, painting a sympathetic portrait of a technological wunderkind whose remarkable intelligence and benevolent intentions are cowed by a world governed by special interest groups and myopic bureaucrats.
“What I found so moving about Aaron’s life is that he was engaged in so many interesting big picture struggles that I think we’re all dealing with now. He was just a little ahead of us,” Knappenberger explained during a recent phone interview. “Being on that edge is not a comfortable place to be.”
By the time of his suicide in January of 2013, the 26-year-old Swartz had already been a founder of the popular community message board site Reddit, helped create the ubiquitous syndication tool RSS and achieved figurehead status in the online free speech movement by leading the fight to kill the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill. He was also facing 13 felony charges and 50 years in prison for copying 4.8 million academic articles from the JSTOR database at MIT.
Knappenberger’s personal interest in Swartz began soon after that dour January day, when the director sat on a panel with several of those affected by the Internet activist’s passing. “It seemed really unusual to me that (Swartz’s suicide) hadn’t gotten the kind of public attention that a lot of notorious hackers had gotten,” he recalled.“I started filming right then. It was just at the beginning of the tsunami of outpouring for Aaron.”
The film begins with Swartz’s origin story: Reading at an early age, coding clunky but impressive programs and forming an indelible moral code of logic. With the help of internet anonymity, a young Swartz argues his way into the good graces of many of his older peers. As he ages, this same unwavering logic leads Swartz to force Reddit (by then owned by Conde Nast) to let him go when the office’s laid back work style frustrated his active mind, leading Swartz away from the prevalent start up culture and towards the fight for freedom of information.
“Aaron seemed to be after a kind of truth of the universe, in a way — science, research and knowledge and how that could help us better understand how to govern ourselves,” Knappenberger explained. “And yet, his famous line from his “Guerrilla Manifesto” (later used by prosecutors to prove his nefarious intent) is ‘Information is power, and like all power there are those who want to keep it for themselves.’ In some ways that’s the battle we’re in — the battle for science and research that is often stained by corporate greed or political power.”
Told through a series of talking head interviews with Swartz’s family, friends and allies including Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web) and Harvard free-speech activist Lawrence Lessig, the majority of The Internet’s Own Boy details Swartz’s political aspirations as he confronts government inefficiency. Swartz himself occasionally expresses his own frustration with the system in a series of archival interviews in which he appears confident but rarely boastful.
“He didn’t want to be the centre of attention,” Knappenberger said of Swartz. “There was a reluctance to feel better than other people. Even with SOPA, in which he certainly played an important role, he didn’t call a lot of attention to himself. He got attention because people gave it to him but he certainly didn’t eat it up the way Steve Jobs did.”
When he was caught scraping MIT’s servers, Swartz’s freedom fighter ambitions took a dark turn as prosecutors, weary of the freshly exposed WikiLeaks scandal, hoped to make an example of him. The film doesn’t feature interviews with government representatives since, as Knappenberger pointed out, they continually refused to comment.
“The hardest part of this film was getting answers about the case itself from the government,” he stated. “Why were they going after him? Why this person when we went through an entire economic meltdown without even a token prosecution? I tried for a really long time to get answers and they shut me down; they shut everybody down, they haven’t really talked about the case.”
Of course, Swartz saw to it that these questions would never be answered.
Knappenberger’s film doesn’t dwindle on the reasons for his suicide, focusing instead on its effect on Swartz’s friends, family and mentors. But for all the sadness, The Internet’s Own Boy closes with a glimmer of hope as Aaron’s Law, which aims to amend the CFAA to avoid recreating what happened to its namesake, appears to be headed to the congressional floor.
When asked for a status update Knappenberger sighed, “It ended up stalled in committee,” he said. “The reason why, we found out a few weeks ago, is because Oracle [the second largest software company in the world] uses it to go after their competitors.”