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

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Originally published on The Digital Fix

Henry David Thoreau, a thinker whose essay on civil disobedience would inspire many modern approaches to nonviolent activism, provides a fitting intellectual context for this exploration of moral and social justice in the digital age. The Internet’s Own Boy opens with a Thoreau special – a thought provoking, lucid and powerful quote pondering the importance of resisting unjust laws and setting the tone for a documentary that inspires and angers in equal measure.

Director Brian Knappenberger’s passionate and stirring effort examines the life of Aaron Swartz, an intellectually gifted computer whiz whose commitment to social activism leads to a number of outstanding achievements, perhaps the most significant of which involved playing a key role in defeating the now infamous Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Prior to SOPA however, Swartz used his immense computer skills to liberate data that he felt ought to be freely available in the public domain. He raided JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals and research, to devastating affect. The idealist whose talents also contributed to the creation of the RSS feed and Reddit could not accept that years of human intellectual endeavour and discovery were unavailable to the majority of the world, while a small few profited from their exclusivity. The US government, licking their wounds after the Wikileaks scandal and determined to send a message to a growing legion of hackers and cyber terrorists, brought the full force of the law down on Swartz. The 26 year old committed suicide while awaiting trial. He was facing up to 35 years in jail for his actions.

Creatively The Internet’s Own Boy does not break any boundaries; in fact it’s pretty standard in terms of format and presentation. Taking a simple, chronological approach it explores Swartz life using talking heads, interviews and footage of Swartz at a number of events, conferences and rallies. While it excellently contextualises Scwartz’s place within a socio-political landscape responding to the transformational changes brought about by the internet, it does not explore the man himself in as much depth as it perhaps could of. Beyond his ridiculous intelligence and commitment to social justice, we don’t learn much about Aron Swartz the person and what was going through his mind at the time. How did he feel about the way he was being treated? What was he proud of, what were his regrets?

Despite this, as with Thoreua, The Internet’s Own Boy greatest success can be found in the deep, humbling questions it makes one ponder. Beyond the obvious debates around national security and privacy rights it forces us to ask the sort of questions that we must return to again and again when trying to understand social progress and our place in history. Will the consequences of being an agent of change always be so tragic? Is civil disobedience justifiable? What are the concealed social and political motives behind our laws?

Upon finishing The Internet’s Own Boy my girlfriend and I, who beforehand knew little of Swartz’s story specifically, were left passionately debating these questions. Again and again we asked not only ‘how could this happen?’, but ‘where does this leave us today?’ The only conclusion we could reach was that the sort of individual our society ought to be most proud of–relentlessly curious, socially conscious and politically active – was the victim of this story.

As the saying goes, History, it would seem, is doomed to repeat itself.

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