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SXSW review: ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

“Not a smart son, Reuven, but a brilliant son…a boy with a mind like a jewel…like a pearl, like a sun.” —Chaim Potok, “The Chosen”

In the novel “The Chosen,” Rabbi Saunders chooses to raise his brilliant son Daniel in silence, without affection, so he will develop compassion.

As depicted in the essential “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” the title figure reminds us it is possible to be born with both.

Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) had a mind like a jewel. His was a once-in-a-generation intellect, a born programmer who, at 14, aided in the development of RSS web syndication technology, “the plumbing for modern hypertext,” as one colleague in the film puts it.

He was involved with the invention of Creative Commons at 15, earning the respect, friendship and admiration of Internet intellectual heavyweights such as Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow and the inventor of the World Wide Web himself, Tim Berners-Lee.

But unlike the fictional Daniel, Swartz had both mind and soul, a bona fide, no-kidding genius blessed with a sense of justice.

After leaving Reddit, a site whose development he worked on, after the site was acquired by Conde Nast, Swartz became a devout Internet activist, believing that it was immoral that public court records and academic articles have such severe financial barriers to access via such systems as PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) the electronic public access service of United States federal court documents, and JSTOR, a pay-archive of academic journals.

He was deeply involved in the campaign to stop the SOPA legislation, one of the most effective grassroots movements against a congressional bill in modern times.

In 2011, Swartz was arrested for breaking and entering after downloading academic journals from JSTOR. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston, led by prosecutor Stephen Heymann, charged him with wire fraud and 11 counts of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He was facing 35 years in prison and a million dollars in fines. After several million dollars in legal fees and a rejected plea bargain, Swartz hung himself in his apartment on or about Jan. 11, 2013.

With a mess of (well, probably a few too many) still photos and interviews with parents, friends, and colleagues, “The Internet’s Own Boy” movingly and methodically tracks this journey, from an upper-middle-class Chicago kid who considered programming magic to the stressed, exhausted young man who ended his own life.

Director Brian Knappenberg unpacks the intellectual underpinnings of Swartz’s beliefs about freedom of information, especially public access to public domain documents, and makes a solid case that the ego of the prosecutors and a desire to make an example of Swartz led to their zeal and, ultimately, his death. Knanppenberg puts Swartz’s intellectual development and political consciousness in the context of the digital land grab of the early 2000s (and Swartz’s lack of interest, though he could have been a billionaire), the rise of Anonymous and the post-9/11 panic over computer’s and terrorism.

One prosecutor notes that there was certainly a sound legal basis for the case against Swartz, and there are certainly hagiographic and emotionally manipulative notes in the film. “The Internet’s Own Boy,” wrenching though it is, is necessary viewing for anyone interested in the intersection of law, technology and intellectual curiosity. Swartz had a mind like a jewel and the U.S. government smashed it to bits.

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” plays again at Alamo Village at 1:45 p.m. March 8 and at the Vimeo Theater in the Austin Convention Center 4:30 p.m. March 15.