New Aaron Swartz Documentary Continues His Crusade for Digital Freedom
By Angela Watercutter via Wired
If there’s one takeaway from the documentary The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last week, it’s the overwhelming sense of what could have been. Prior to his death a year ago this month, Aaron Swartz was facing federal hacking charges, but he was also a strong voice in political activism online. He cofounded Demand Progress. He helped stop SOPA. He warned people about government spying. And, as the film demonstrates, he was a young man with an uncanny ability to explain fantastically complex technological and political topics in layman’s terms — one of the best-equipped people to explain why the very laws used to indict him were so outdated.
That’s what makes The Internet’s Own Boy so poignant. In the year since Swartz’s suicide the world has become far more aware of the threats to civil liberties online – thanks in large part to the Edward Snowden NSA leaks – and more curious about what they should do to ensure their freedoms. According to Swartz’s father, the documentary is in a position to shine a spotlight on the criminal justice system’s disproportionately punitive approach to hackers by putting a human face on issues that can easily become bogged down in hard-to-parse technobabble and political issues.
“All of this is unbelievably hard for us, but Aaron is dead, there is nothing we can do about that. But we can try to make the world a better place,” Robert Swartz said following the movie’s premiere at Sundance last week. “If we can do that through this [documentary] then we have to.”
Speaking in a Park City restaurant after the screening, Swartz’s brother Noah echoed his father’s comments, adding that after seeing the film people have been “asking me about Net Neutrality, asking me about NSA spying, and encryption, and that sort of thing, and about what sort of organizations are fighting against this and what they can do.”
This sort of reaction is what director Brian Knappenberger was expecting, even hoping for. Previously a documentarian for the PBS investigative documentary series Frontline where his work took a more objective tone, he’s since come around to the idea that documentary films “should have a point-of-view.” And though the film makes a solid argument that the government’s case was an attempt to make an example of Swartz as fears and confusion about hacking and copyright issues were mounting, Knappenberger said he strove to understand why Swartz was being prosecuted so heavily for downloading a large number of academic articles from the service JSTOR.
“I occasionally take heat for being one-sided but with this film I really tried… to understand what the government was doing,” Knappenberger said, noting that Swartz’s prosecutors offered no comment for the documentary and — since the case didn’t go to trial — never revealed exactly what kind of case the government planned to bring. “I think documenting it hopefully lets people always have a reference about these issues – an entry point for people who aren’t necessarily tech-obsessed.”
Knappenberger’s commitment to making the content of the film open and accessible has made it a bit harder to sell his film at Sundance, however. He wants the footage to be made available with a Creative Commons license, but the idea of allowing the public to play with the content has proved a sticking point with distributors. “Without Creative Commons we’d be done [with a deal] now, I think,” he said.
The film traces Swartz’s life from his childhood as a kid who had the ears of adults in the tech industry before he was even out of high school to his time with Y Combinator launching Infogami, which was eventually merged with Reddit. It also details his disillusionment after Reddit was acquired by Condé Nast (parent company of WIRED), his firing from the company, and eventual move into internet activism with the launch of Demand Progress and his efforts to put an end to the Stop Online Piracy Act.
And of course, it details the federal government’s legal case against Swartz, who was indicted in 2011 on charges of wire fraud and violating of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for his JSTOR downloads. Swartz faced 35 years in prison if convicted on the charges, but committed suicide on Jan. 11, 2013 before his case went to trial. (After his death, the bill known as “Aaron’s Law” was introduced in Congress to reform the CFAA, though there’s been little forward movement.)
As his case loomed, however, he continued speaking out about freedoms and privacy online, in one case telling an interviewer “the problem with the spying program is it’s this sort of long, slow expansion, you know, going back to the Nixon Administration … but there’s never been this moment you can point to and say ‘Ok, we need to galvanize opposition today because today is when it matters.’” Knappenberger calls that footage, which was filmed before the release of the NSA documents by Snowden, one of the most “chilling” in his documentary.
“There’s that one [sound]bite… where he’s saying there’s never been a moment when we’ve all realized ‘Oh this is terrible, this is happening, what are we going to do?’ And, of course, he just didn’t live to see that moment.”