Chicago native Aaron Swartz was both an idealist and a realist. The Internet prodigy had the highest aspirations, but he also realized that felons weren’t allowed to work in the White House.
Swartz’s brief, brilliant life, and the seemingly noncontroversial principles for which he was persecuted by the government, are the provocative subject of Brian Knappenberger’s detailed and often infuriating documentary, “The Internet’s Own Boy.” It opened late last month and is also available on VOD (video on demand).
The unrelenting pressure of a two-year federal prosecution and the increasing likelihood of incarceration almost certainly factored in the 26-year-old Swartz’s suicide in Brooklyn in January 2013. Just two days earlier, the hardline U.S. Attorney had refused to accept a plea agreement without prison time.
“There was a looming trial,” Knappenberger said. “I think Aaron was scared to lose his physical freedom. I think he was immensely frightened that he’d be labeled as a felon and all the consequences of that, which really means he can’t do any of the political things that he wanted.”
The impression one gets from the film and the director is that Swartz grew up in an affluent, observant Jewish household in which technology and thinking for one’s self were emphasized.
“I think his family thought and argued a lot about technology and politics,” Knappenberger said in a recent interview. “It seemed to me a kitchen table that was constantly engaged in issues of technology, and you could see where Aaron got his propensity to dig in and question.”
“The Internet’s Own Boy” features poignant interviews with Aaron’s parents, Robert and Susan, and his brothers, Ben and Noah, as well as home movies and photographs.
“I really couldn’t have done the film without Aaron’s family,” Knappenberger said. “It took a lot of courage for them to open up to me. Particularly so soon. I made this film in a year, which by documentary standards is just incredibly fast.”
The family, with the exception of Aaron’s mother, who was dealing with some physical issues, attended the Sundance Film Festival premiere of “The Internet’s Own Boy.” While the Swartzes unambiguously support the film, one observer at Sundance noted that the family — devastated by the government’s abuse of power and protective of Aaron’s reputation and legacy — responded cautiously to journalists.
Swartz was a prodigy who adopted and mastered computer skills at an early age and within a few years had earned the respect of established Internet developers. By his late teens, he had co-developed and sold the popular online forum and community Reddit.
“That  sale to [publishing conglomerate] Conde Nast makes him a very rich 19-year-old,” Knappenberger said. “And then he takes this turn to social justice and turns his back on the Silicon Valley start-up culture that he saw, it seems to me, as a machine for making money.”
Aaron’s growing activism led to efforts to increase the free online availability of court records and medical and scientific research. For the latter project, he downloaded an enormous number of articles through MIT’s network from the academic database JSTOR with the intention of spotlighting the private, for-profit control of publicly funded and created information.
Although the U.S. Attorney conceded that Swartz had no plans to profit from the mass download, he resolved to send a message and filed charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, theft of information from a computer and recklessly damaging a computer. And so began Swartz’s two-year nightmare.
“He was certainly willing to put himself on the line,” said Knappenberger, whose previous films include “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists.” “He was willing to kick up a little dust. I feel like I have a perspective on this having met so many hackers and activists and seen so many approaches. In the sense of wanting to change the world, it seemed to me he was pretty comfortably within the boundaries of the law, all things considered. So it’s particularly bizarre they would go after him for two years.”
Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic and journalist.