On January 11th 2013 Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist who was facing a maximum of 50 years jail time and $1 million fine for the crime of illegally downloading academic journals, committed suicide. I was in the midst of the initial outcry and mourning on reddit.com, a website that lists him as a co-founder. I regret that I had no idea who he was, what he did, or why he died. Although the unfathomable idea of the weight of the punishment was understandable, it seemed like it meant more than that. It wasn’t until I saw this documentary, Brian Knappenberger’s The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, where I finally found out more about him.
It is a film that treats Aaron with a bittersweet fondness, as if he is a true one-of-a-kind lost forever, though there are many like him. Instead of trying to pretend that it isn’t emotionally involved with him, it embraces that aspect and tries to wrap you around with it, beginning his story with charming home video footage that conveniently displays his intelligence and personality. The documentary details how he was a prodigy in the world of programming and took the heads of influential Internet companies by surprise with his age.
However, bored and frustrated with college classes, he instead took an interest in activism against the crippling protection laws against important academic information. He offered the data on openlibrary, which offers free books, and actively fought SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, which threatened the end of many of the Internet’s most popular websites and freedoms. It lead him to hacking the information himself but he was eventually arrested with an exaggerated punishment in a ‘head-on-stake’ effort by the government to threaten others from following his footsteps.
The Internet’s Own Boy is a politically motivated documentary that promotes the civil liberties that Swartz stood for, and it makes a compelling argument why it’s in the right. As the film frequently states, if a law is unjust then the most important thing you can do is to fight it. It’s a deliberately heavy-handed rallying call, one against government policies as a single injustice can spark a war, and it’s quite effective, providing convincing evidence of the benefits of what Aaron did as the medical journals he’s made available have already saved lives. Above all it’s about the tragic figure of Aaron, with the documentary almost trying to make him out a martyr, and that weight looms over the events all the way leading to when they talk about his death.
The biggest focuses out of Aaron are on the people around him, including his brothers, mother, girlfriends and colleagues, and the more animated and emotional people make for involving interviewees to watch. Their passion for the cause and Aaron really shine through, especially when they’re particularly broken up about it, of which Knappenberger captures in candid intimate moments. What really binds the documentary together is its intense soundtrack which always brings a heart-in-throat tension about the poignant inevitability without breaching sentimentality.
It’s great to have a documentary about the Internet that really works, as last years We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard weren’t satisfying enough for some. It’s a film to match the contemporary yet sinister energy of The Social Network, and makes a story that would otherwise be overly dry engaging and enlightening. The Internet’s Own Boy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is now currently legally online in full on YouTube. It’s certainly worth watching as one of the best documentaries of the year so far and it will most likely stay that way.
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