The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz photo starrating-4stars.jpgBrian Knappenberger directs this fascinating documentary about Aaron Swartz, a computer programming prodigy turned internet activist. A hacker not out for personal gain but rather to promote free access to information. The Internet’s Own Boy is a sympathetic portrait. The narrative is fashioned as the loss of a great mind as a consequence of the U.S. government’s overzealous pursuit of a transgressor. A persecution that was disproportional to the seriousness of his actual crime. JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) is a digital library featuring back issues of academic journals. Aaron was guilty of bulk-downloading a substantial portion of JSTOR’s records using the MIT computer network. Most of the data was available via a paid subscription. Some of the older data was obtainable by anyone for no charge. As the trial approached, Aaron was facing multiple felony charges that could have put him in federal prison. As the case mounted against him, he faced a sentence of up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine, if convicted.

The Internet’s Own Boy does a great job at presenting a potentially confusing topic in a straightforward and level headed manner. First the account lays out the case for the truly brilliant mind this young man possessed. In family videos we see him as a child reading at an ability far beyond his years. At 12 he created The Info Network, a user-generated encyclopedia not unlike Wikipedia. In his teens he was instrumental in the creation of the RSS feed, the public domain watchdog group Creative Commons, and the formation of the social news site Reddit. The documentary makes the argument that he was a key player in the defeat of The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Opponents warned that the proposed legislation’s reach extended much further than mere copyright law. The federal government could block whole internet domains if they saw fit. This, they argued, would ultimately threaten first amendment rights on the Internet. You will marvel at his extraordinarily gifted mind.

Then the chronicle goes into the details of his crime. Swartz wasn’t interested in leaking classified documents. He was for the uninhibited dissemination of knowledge that could benefit people. The story acknowledges that infiltrating JSTOR’s database wasn’t completely legal. What he planned to do with his massive procurement of 5 million articles is not specifically known. Yet his misdeed ended there. It’s alleged by the prosecution that he intended to release the downloads to the public on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Even his friends and colleagues accept that this wasn’t such a far-fetched supposition. One only need read his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” to know his opinion toward free and open information.

Aaron Swartz stood for a free and democratic Internet. He was guilty of downloading 5 million scholarly texts from the JSTOR database. However since this material wasn’t of a sensitive nature, nor did he plan to financially gain from the acquisition, the infraction seems negligible at best.  Unfortunately none of the antagonists agreed to appear on camera.  If there’s a villain here it’s the U.S. attorney’s office and specially the chief prosecutor in the case, Stephen Heymann. He doesn’t fare too well at all. His absence doesn’t help him, but it’s hard to say whether it would have served him if he had showed up to defend his questionable motives.  Even hallowed university MIT comes under fire for its failure to speak up in Aaron’s defense despite their supposed commitment to open access.  The end result is a one-sided but emotionally compelling view. It will make you angry but it will also make you profoundly sad. You will mourn this young man who, in the aftermath of the events detailed here, ultimately took his own life.

19 Responses to “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz”

  1. I’ve never heard of this film (or Aaron Swartz) but now I’m interested. Good review.

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Really great review. This sounds like a really powerful and heartbreaking documentary, can’t wait to check it out.


  3. sounds great, haven’t heard of it till now. Thanks


  4. Emily Crawford-Margison Says:

    Interesting. I will have to check this out. I just watched a couple docs on Assange and Anonymous, so I’m totally tuned in to the topic of information right now. Thanks, and happy writing.


  5. Wow. brilliant review man, the ending line is a killer. How tragic for him to take his own life with such a gifted mind. Must look into accessing this one as soon as I can.

    Thanks for the heads-up Mark!


  6. Sounds like a very good movie I would like. Heartbreaking too. Such a sad tragic end. Doesn’t seem to fit the crime. He shoulda hung in there.


  7. Hey Mark,

    Thanks for recommending this movie to me. I really really enjoyed it!



  8. Thanks for calling my attention to this movie.

    You apparently came to the same conclusions as its makers did. As far as what’s shown on the screen though, it’s worth mentioning that the audience doesn’t get enough information to form an opinion about the politics of the situation or, for that matter, the personal traits that led Aaron to commit suicide. The film’s really a eulogy for a guy who died young. All of the interviewees were Aaron’s relatives or allies, and the writers were a hundred percent on his side. Everything said about Aaron is positive; everything about his enemies is poisonous. The “other” guys were just out to make money, they tell us, while Aaron and his pals were trying – what else? – to make the world a better place to live. (It must’ve been some greedy malefactor that forced the kid to accept a million dollars before he was 20.) Anyway that’s the level of partiality the movie resorts to. The writers would’ve done themselves a favor by showing Aaron’s partisans as at least capable of acknowledging other points of view and not coming across as quite so self-righteous about the causes they chose to promote.

    The most interesting point, I thought, is one the movie didn’t mention probably because it didn’t occur to the people who made it: the degree to which Aaron was a victim of a political philosophy he’d probably been so submerged in that he never thought to question it, even when he found himself being done in by what it had led to. What I’m talking about is the penchant to hand over to the federal government the ability to define society’s problems and do whatever it takes to solve them. The movie did perform a service in giving its audience a glimpse into the world of internet enthusiasts, who seem to develop a brand of self-assurance appropriate to the activities they’re regularly involved in but doesn’t carry over too well to dealing with folks of different interests and attitudes outside.


    • I’m not sure if I came to any hard conclusions other than suicide is a tragedy and the federal government often creates more problems than it solves.

      Even with the doc’s obvious bias which I acknowledge, I still like these true life tales. They’re a window into aspects of life I might have never known about.


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