Brian Knappenberger on capturing the life and death of Aaron Swartz in The Internet’s Own Boy

Aaron Swartz.
Noah BergerAaron Swartz.

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.”

Hot Docs
Hot DocsDirector Brian Knappenberger.

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.”

Aaron Swartz.

Hot Docs


AARON: Linked in. The Applied Sociologist.

Here’s his profile as his friends saw it.


Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz

Applied sociologist.

Brooklyn, New York 
Political Organization
  1. Tech Lead at ThoughtWorks
  1. Change.org
  2. Avaaz.org
  3. Demand Progress
  1. Sociology at Stanford University
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Privately Held; 1001-5000 employees; Information Technology and Services industry

April 2012 – Present (10 months) Greater New York City Area

Leading a project to develop free and open source software for social activism.

Recommend Aaron’s work at ThoughtWorks

Privately Held; 51-200 employees; Internet industry

February 2012 – April 2012 (3 months) Greater New York City Area

Recommend Aaron’s work at Change.org

Nonprofit; 11-50 employees; Civic & Social Organization industry

June 2011 – February 2012 (9 months) Greater New York City Area

Experimented with new ways of communicating with members, including development of a new daily briefing website. Also led the campaign against SOPA/PIPA that attracted millions of new members to the organization.

Recommend Aaron’s work at Avaaz.org

Nonprofit; 1-10 employees; Political Organization industry

November 2010 – June 2011 (8 months)

Launched the fight against the Internet censorship bill (COICA/SOPA/PIPA) and grew the organization to over a million members.

Recommend Aaron’s work at Demand Progress


2009 – February 2011 (2 years)

Helped launch the organization and grow it to half-a-million members, engaging in key battles around health care and financial reform.

Recommend Aaron’s work at Progressive Change Campaign Committee


2008 – 2009 (1 year)

Led the development of a new website for viewing and analyzing government data.

Recommend Aaron’s work at watchdog.net


2007 – 2009 (2 years)

Led the development of a new wiki with a web page for every book in the world.

Recommend Aaron’s work at Open Library


November 2005 – January 2007 (1 year 3 months)

Software development and strategy taking the site up to its acquisition by Condé Nast.

Recommend Aaron’s work at reddit

Nonprofit; 11-50 employees; Internet industry

2002 – 2004 (2 years)

Developed the schema and syntax for describing how documents can be used under particular CC licenses.

Recommend Aaron’s work at Creative Commons


1999 – 2000 (1 year)

Wrote the RDF RFC for the IETF and evangelized the format to web developers.

Recommend Aaron’s work at RDF Core Working Group


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Additional Information


AARON: Ryan Singel

Aaron Swartz and the Two Faces of Power

  • 01.18.13
  • 6:30 AM

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Aaron Swartz called me in early May 2011 — I was an editor at Wired then covering privacy, crime, and security – asking if he could give me some information under embargo.

“The feds might come knocking,” he said. “Someone went to a library and downloaded things and they claim it exceeded authorized access.” Aaron, whom I’d written about before, was being careful — which meant cagey, evasive, and awkward. “I hope this doesn’t happen,” he added, referring to the raid.

But Aaron was clearly worried and seemed a bit embarrassed by the drama. Without admitting anything, he noted that he once downloaded and analyzed hundreds of thousands of law review articles to see who was doing sponsored research. The resulting paper had been published in theStanford Law Review in 2008.

It wasn’t much to go on. I didn’t know the institution or the data set or the dates or the place — but I drafted what I could, to be published if he was indeed raided the next day. It actually took two more months for the feds to charge him for excessively downloading academic articles. That prosecution came despite the fact that the non-profit Aaron had downloaded articles from had no interest in prosecuting him.

Aaron had pissed off Power.

Ryan Singel

Ryan Singel is the former editor and co-founder of Wired’s award-winning Threat Level section. He is the founder of Contextly, which provides publishers tools for sharing relevant content with readers through related links.

A week ago, Aaron, 26, committed suicide on the second anniversary of being arrested by local police while leaving the MIT campus. Federal prosecutors had taken over the case and later hit Aaron with four felonies, accusing him of planning to publish all the articles, which would have violated copyright law. “Theft is theft,” the prosecutor’s office said.

It’s a bit ironic because in May 2012, Aaron gave a speechrecounting how he came to be part of the fight against SOPA/PIPA, two bills that threatened to build blacklists into America’s internet, ostensibly to fight against online copyright and trademark infringement. It started, he said, with a call in September 2010 from his copyright activist friend Peter who said there was crazy bill called COICA, short for Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act.

Aaron wasn’t convinced. “Peter, I don’t care about copyright law. Maybe you are right, maybe Hollywood is right, but either way, I’m not going to waste my life fighting over a little issue like copyright. Health care, financial reform, those are the issues I work on.” Yet you could say that copyright — shorthand for the intellectual property owned by large profitable corporations — killed Aaron.

But that isn’t quite right.

You could say, as many others including his family have, that the prosecutors in the case really killed him. After all, it was Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann — with the support of the head federal prosecutor in Boston Carmen Ortiz — who took a minor case with no victim or harm done, filed a four-count indictment for hacking, and later upped that to 13 felonies — hanging a 35-year sentence (later offered at 6 months if admitting to guilt) over Aaron’s head and forcing his friends into a grand jury room to testify.

But that’s too easy.

While the non-profit academic research distribution database JSTOR decided not to press chargesafter Aaron returned the articles he’d downloaded, MIT did press charges. That supposed bastion of hacker culture wanted the interloper on its famously open network and campus to do real time, and reportedly refused to sign-off on any plea deal that didn’t involve Aaron inside a federal prison. So maybe it was the college administration that killed Aaron.

But that’s not it either.

Power Killed Aaron Swartz

Power isn’t just an abstraction: It has possessors, supplicants, and hand servants.

That’s not to absolve Big Content or the Justice Department or big institutions. Power isn’t just an abstraction: It has possessors, supplicants, and hand servants. It can bought and sold with money, integrity, favors and sacrificial blood — usually not one’s own.

Aaron actually came from a life of privilege. And he was extraordinarily talented. At age 14, he contributed to the important internet-sharing specification known as RSS. He then advised Larry Lessig on how to use metadata in Creative Commons, so that alternative copyright licenses could be machine-readable and therefore easily findable and shareable.

He later made a decent pile of money from the sale of Reddit to Conde Nast (which owns Wired), though not as much as many thought — he didn’t want to work in an office for the 3 years it would take to fully vest. Aaron could have then turned to any number of comfortable, lucrative Silicon Valley pursuits, but he decided his life was elsewhere: Fighting to make information free. Fighting to get healthcare for Americans who can’t afford routine medical care. Fighting corruption on Wall Street and money in politics.

Aaron learned as much as he could from insiders so that his action group Demand Progress didn’t just demand, but could actually make, progress. But he also kept his hacktivism spirit.

In 2008, Aaron whipped up a hack to liberate the nation’s legal history from the official electronic filing system run by the U.S. Courts, PACER. The information inside isn’t copyrighted, yet PACER has a paywall that exists mainly to fill the U.S. Courts’ coffers at the expense of the citizenry. (The U.S. court system tried to ward off its critics by offering free access to Pacer from a few libraries.) Aaron’s script saw an opening, which he used to make more than 20 percent of PACER’s court filings public. He cleverly used the U.S. Court system’s own profession of openness against it, forcing them to call in the FBI and prompting an investigation.

It’s not good to be on Power’s bad side if what you do falls into the gray area of enforcing the letter as opposed to the principles of the law.

He was never charged with a crime, but, in keeping with his sense of humor, Aaron FOIA’d his own FBI file and posted it to the web with some jabs at the agents. But the downloaded files also later formed the heart of RECAP, a project that lets lawyers and researchers donate to the commons every time they pay to view a filing on PACER.

I think this was the moment Aaron joined a “different” side of activism, a side that recognizes that writing or campaigning aren’t going to change anything when it comes to powerful institutions.

It’s good to be on Power’s good side, though. Just ask the folks at HSBC, which just got busted for laundering money for Mexican drug cartels; no official was charged and the bank got off with a fine (the government didn’t want to disturb the financial markets). Go ahead and crash the economy with the time bombs known as bad mortgages but labeled Grade A investments; you won’t be charged with one felony, let alone 13.

It’s not good to be on Power’s bad side, however. When you are on that side, Power piles on charges rather than shrugging off felonies as simple mistakes. Especially if what you do falls into the gray area of enforcing the letter as opposed to the principles of the law. Think about the other people besides Aaron out there. Think about WikiLeaks, the focus of a federal grand jury investigation, whose volunteers are repeatedly stopped at borders where their electronics are seized. Think about Andrew Auernheimer (a.k.a. “Weev”), the iPad hacker whose real crime was embarrassing the wrong people — and who is awaiting sentencing.

For those who chose to be on the other side of activism — or for those who didn’t have a choice because of birth or circumstance — watch out, because Power has “prosecutorial discretion.”

You can file all the petitions you like with the powers that be. You can try to make Power –whether in the form of wiretapping without warrants or violating international conventions against torture — follow its own laws. But Power is, as you might suspect, on the side of Power. Which is to say, Power never pleads guilty.

AARON-Glen Grenwald

Guardian piece by Glenn Greenwald

The inspiring heroism of Aaron Swartz

The internet freedom activist committed suicide on Friday at age 26, but his life was driven by courage and passion

The internet activist Aaron Swartz

The internet activist Aaron Swartz, seen here in January 2009, has died at the age of 26. Photograph: Michael Francis Mcelroy/AP

(updated below)

Aaron Swartz, the computer programmer and internet freedom activist, committed suicide on Friday in New York at the age of 26. As the incredibly moving remembrances from his friends such as Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig attest, he was unquestionably brilliant but also – like most everyone – a complex human being plagued by demons and flaws. For many reasons, I don’t believe in whitewashing someone’s life or beatifying them upon death. But, to me, much of Swartz’s tragically short life was filled with acts that are genuinely and, in the most literal and noble sense, heroic. I think that’s really worth thinking about today.

At the age of 14, Swartz played a key role in developing the RSS software that is still widely used to enable people to manage what they read on the internet. As a teenager, he also played a vital role in the creation of Reddit, the wildly popular social networking news site. When Conde Nast purchased Reddit, Swartz received a substantial sum of money at a very young age. He became something of a legend in the internet and programming world before he was 18. His path to internet mogul status and the great riches it entails was clear, easy and virtually guaranteed: a path which so many other young internet entrepreneurs have found irresistible, monomaniacally devoting themselves to making more and more money long after they have more than they could ever hope to spend.

But rather obviously, Swartz had little interest in devoting his life to his own material enrichment, despite how easy it would have been for him. As Lessig wrote: “Aaron had literally done nothing in his life ‘to make money’ . . . Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good.”

Specifically, he committed himself to the causes in which he so passionately believed: internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and knowledge as available as possible. Here he is in his May, 2012 keynote address at the Freedom To Connect conference discussing the role he played in stopping SOPA, the movie-industry-demanded legislation that would have vested the government with dangerous censorship powers over the internet.

Critically, Swartz didn’t commit himself to these causes merely by talking about them or advocating for them. He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That’s what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.

In 2008, Swartz targeted Pacer, the online service that provides access to court documents for a per-page fee. What offended Swartz and others was that people were forced to pay for access to public court documents that were created at public expense. Along with a friend, Swartz created a program to download millions of those documents and then, as Doctorow wrote, “spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain.” For that act of civil disobedience, he was investigated and harassed by the FBI, but never charged.

But in July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly targeting JSTOR, the online publishing company that digitizes and distributes scholarly articles written by academics and then sells them, often at a high price, to subscribers. As Maria Bustillos detailed, none of the money goes to the actual writers (usually professors) who wrote the scholarly articles – they are usually not paid for writing them – but instead goes to the publishers.

This system offended Swartz (and many other free-data activists) for two reasons: it charged large fees for access to these articles but did not compensate the authors, and worse, it ensured that huge numbers of people are denied access to the scholarship produced by America’s colleges and universities. The indictment filed against Swartz alleged that he used his access as a Harvard fellow to the JSTOR system to download millions of articles with the intent to distribute them online for free; when he was detected and his access was cut off, the indictment claims he then trespassed into an MIT computer-wiring closet in order to physically download the data directly onto his laptop.

Swartz never distributed any of these downloaded articles. He never intended to profit even a single penny from anything he did, and never did profit in any way. He had every right to download the articles as an authorized JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the company’s “terms of service” by making the articles available to the public. Once arrested, he returned all copies of everything he downloaded and vowed not to use them. JSTOR told federal prosecutors that it had no intent to see him prosecuted, though MIT remained ambiguous about its wishes.

But federal prosecutors ignored the wishes of the alleged “victims”. Led by a federal prosecutor in Boston notorious for her overzealous prosecutions, the DOJ threw the book at him, charging Swartz with multiple felonies which carried a total sentence of several decades in prison and $1 million in fines.

Swartz’s trial on these criminal charges was scheduled to begin in two months. He adamantly refused to plead guilty to a felony because he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a convicted felon with all the stigma and rights-denials that entails. The criminal proceedings, as Lessig put it, already put him in a predicament where “his wealth [was] bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge.”

To say that the DOJ’s treatment of Swartz was excessive and vindictive is an extreme understatement. When I wrote about Swartz’s plight last August, I wrote that he was “being prosecuted by the DOJ with obscene over-zealousness”. Timothy Lee wrote the definitive article in 2011 explaining why, even if all the allegations in the indictment are true, the only real crime committed by Swartz was basic trespassing, for which people are punished, at most, with 30 days in jail and a $100 fine, about which Lee wrote: “That seems about right: if he’s going to serve prison time, it should be measured in days rather than years.”

Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”

I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times’ Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz’s case. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government’s efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.

That’s a major part of why I consider him heroic. He wasn’t merely sacrificing himself for a cause. It was a cause of supreme importance to people and movements around the world – internet freedom – and he did it by knowingly confronting the most powerful state and corporate factions because he concluded that was the only way to achieve these ends.

Suicide is an incredibly complicated phenomenon. I didn’t know Swartz nearly well enough even to form an opinion about what drove him to do this; I had a handful of exchanges with him online in which we said nice things about each other’s work and I truly admired him. I’m sure even his closest friends and family are struggling to understand exactly what caused him to defy his will to live by taking his own life.

But, despite his public and very sad writings about battling depression, it only stands to reason that a looming criminal trial that could send him to prison for decades played some role in this; even if it didn’t, this persecution by the DOJ is an outrage and an offense against all things decent, for the reasons Lessig wrote today:

“Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The ‘property’ Aaron had ‘stolen’, we were told, was worth ‘millions of dollars’ — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

“A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

“For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to ‘justice’ never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled ‘felons’.”

Whatever else is true, Swartz was destroyed by a “justice” system that fully protects the most egregious criminals as long as they are members of or useful to the nation’s most powerful factions, but punishes with incomparable mercilessness and harshness those who lack power and, most of all, those who challenge power.

Swartz knew all of this. But he forged ahead anyway. He could have easily opted for a life of great personal wealth, status, prestige and comfort. He chose instead to fight – selflessly, with conviction and purpose, and at great risk to himself – for noble causes to which he was passionately devoted. That, to me, isn’t an example of heroism; it’s the embodiment of it, its purest expression. It’s the attribute our country has been most lacking.

I always found it genuinely inspiring to watch Swartz exude this courage and commitment at such a young age. His death had better prompt some serious examination of the DOJ’s behavior – both in his case and its warped administration of justice generally. But his death will also hopefully strengthen the inspirational effects of thinking about and understanding the extraordinary acts he undertook in his short life.


From the official statement of Swartz’s family:

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

This sort of unrestrained prosecutorial abuse is, unfortunately, far from uncommon. It usually destroys people without attention or notice. Let’s hope – and work to ensure that – the attention generated by Swartz’s case prompts some movement toward accountability and reform.