“He contributed through his technical abilities, and yet it was not simply a technical matter to him.” This is how Gabriella Coleman, a cultural anthropologist, describes Aaron Swartz, the Internet prodigy turned Internet activist who would commit suicide in 2013 rather than face federal prosecution for unlawfully downloading academic journal articles, but it aptly describes The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz itself. The technical composition of Brian Knappenberger’s film is commonplace, relying on a wide range of talking heads and Swartz’s old interviews via TV and web chats meshed with vintage photographs and archival footage, and its central character’s brief, turbulent, and radical existence is charted in concise chronological order. The film, however, is far from a technical matter, fiercely promoting Swartz’s legacy and challenging us with the same questions its central subject was compelled to ask.
Knappenberger traces his protagonist’s swift arc from an inquisitive childhood to a technologically cognizant adolescence that remarkably found him helping to create RSS feeds and Creative Commons, two web-based conceptions specifically focusing on the Internet for its reservoir of knowledge. And his quest for knowledge is ultimately what fuels an ardent opinion that the World Wide Web should be a repository of information freely open to everyone. Yet it also triggers his abruptly tragic downfall, prompting him to pirate research documents kept secured from ordinary citizens behind paywalls that would seem to violate privacy law. And while the illegality of his actions is made clear, the film also harshly critiques the punitive government investigation as merely making an “example” of him.
Knappenberger’s sympathy toward Swartz is unconditional. Consequently, the film has no interest in offering counterpoints to its own argument, though, to be fair, we’re told that most Swartz dissenters declined to be interviewed. And for all the justifiable anger his plight engenders, the primary combatant still comes through at a remove, less a fully formed person than a pariah, seeing him more for what he did than who he was, unable to discern the precise emotional entanglements that might have brought about his death. Then again, Knappenberger is less interested in what precisely led to his death than what his death meant. This isn’t investigative journalism, but urgent advocacy filmmaking. Swartz’s mantra declared that “everything you learn is provisional,” suggesting one’s belief system can be remodeled with new information. The film commiserates a loss, but also effectively appeals for enlightenment, asking us to hear and consider what Swartz championed, which is a worthy testament to this young man’s legacy.