When Aaron Swartz committed suicide 18 months ago, news organizations reporting the story tended to identify him first and foremost as one of the founders of Reddit. That’s fundamentally inaccurate: Swartz wasn’t around when Reddit was created (he became a partner via a merger with a different company he founded, Infogami), and he only worked there for about a year before being fired, ultimately having little impact. More people have heard of Reddit than are familiar with RSS or Creative Commons, though, so Swartz’s actual accomplishments were glossed over in favor of a simpler, punchier story. The Internet’s Own Boy persuasively argues that a similar reductiveness lurked beneath the indictments that led Swartz to hang himself at age 26, with federal prosecutors deliberately ignoring the substance of his actions in order to make a harsh example of him that might deter other hacktivists. It’s the same outrageous nonsense that’s seen people hit with multimillion-dollar fines for illegally downloading two albums’ worth of songs, except this time it cost us one of our best and brightest—someone who wanted to change the world.
A child prodigy, Swartz taught himself to read when he was three, and by the time he was 14 he was part of the team that authored the original RSS syndication format. (The film includes charming archival footage of him speaking at conferences as a teenager, surrounded by visibly impressed adults.) As he grew older, he became more and more involved with progressive issues, spearheading the grassroots campaign that killed SOPA (the potentially ruinous Stop Online Piracy Act) and advocating for the open Internet on news programs, where he was a ubiquitous remote-feed talking head. What got Swartz in trouble, though, was his staunch opposition to government-funded academic research being available only to those able to pay an exorbitant fee. When he downloaded tons of documents from a digital library called JSTOR, the Feds arrested him, eventually hitting him with 13 felony indictments; at the time of his suicide, he was facing up to 50 years in prison, plus $1 million in fines. He was offered a deal involving only six months of jail time, should he plead guilty to all charges, but had no interest in spending his life as a convicted felon.
Because nobody in the Justice Department, at JSTOR, or at MIT (whose JSTOR access Swartz abused) would talk to director Brian Knappenberger, The Internet’s Own Boy inevitably leans pretty hagiographic, portraying Swartz as a martyr hounded to an early grave. The film also struggles, as so many issue-oriented documentaries do, to find visually expressive ways to tell a story that’s better suited to books and articles. (Surely some editor would have flagged Knappenberger’s assertion that 2010-11 was “a time of unprecedented social and political activism,” perhaps with the note, “ever heard of the late ’60s?”) All the same, Swartz’s abbreviated history is deeply sad in any medium, and if it’s unfair to blame the government for his death, as several interview subjects do here, that doesn’t forestall outrage at overzealous prosecution of people who’ve clearly committed acts of civil disobedience. While Swartz almost certainly would not have been sentenced to 50 years in prison, a system that tries to scare harmless do-gooders into submission does America no credit. In this case, it succeeded all too horribly well.