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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz documentary review: threat to the system

The Internet's Own Boy green light

An essential — and enraging — documentary about the life, career, and death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, a danger to corporate hegemony whose work could not be allowed to continue.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

If you don’t know who Aaron Swartz is, you should. If we manage to end up with an Internet — and a larger culture — that values freedom and creativity over corporate profits and mass surveillance, we will have Swartz, in part, to thank for it. And for his efforts, he was, basically, hounded into suicide in January 2013, at the age of 26, after the U.S. federal government decided to make an example of Swartz and pursue a malicious prosecution that could have resulted in 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine for an act of civil disobedience intended to highlight how online access to public-domain and taxpayer-funded information (such as court records and academic research) has been locked away, accessible only via often steep fees, by for-profit private corporations.

This angry film, from documentarian Brian Knappenberger, traces the too-brief life story of an Internet prodigy who went from creating, at age 12, an early Wikipedia running on a “tiny server” to helping invent RSS, launch Reddit, and write the first technical specs for Creative Commons. Copyright issues were a particular focus of this “astonishing intellect” who “rejected the business world”: he was an oddball even in Silicon Valley, because he was political, a crusader against corporatism, which is everything the industry has come to be about. Interviews with family and friends — including such Net luminaries as Tim Berners-Lee and Cory Doctorow — explain the importance of Swartz’s work and lament the pointless loss of his talent and passion.

Swartz was vocally, publicly against SOPA, the ludicrous proposed U.S. law that would have criminalized, via extending existing outmoded copyright laws, almost everything a noncorporate entity did online, and that bill was defeated. He helped get Elizabeth Warren, one of the most outspokenly progressive and anticorporate politicians on the American political stage, elected to the Senate. If these actions didn’t get him tagged as a troublemaker and hassler of the Powers That Be, then when he started talking about how we’re all being spied on electronically — and this was before Edward Snowden!* — that absolutely did it: the U.S. government piled additional absurd felony counts on Swartz, even using the PATRIOT Act to accuse him of “electronic crimes.” So, yeah, they saw Swartz as a terrorist.

As this cool, collected, yet ultimately enraging film highlights, all of this was happening at a time when the bankers who crashed the global economy faced no prosecution at all, and still walk free to enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of their crimes. Of course, those bankers didn’t threaten corporate hegemony — in fact, they reinforced it — and Swartz did. “Information is power,” Swartz wrote, and he was doing everything he could to shout from the rooftops that for-profit corps are hoarding that information — that power — for themselves in a “private theft of public culture.” The U.S. government treated “one of the most creative minds of our generation” like he was dangerous because he was dangerous… to the very structures that maintain injustice and inequality in America today.


*In fact, we can be almost certain than the Net-savvy Snowden knew who Swartz was and was aware of how he was harassed by the feds for far smaller “crimes” than Snowden himself was about to commit, which may be part of why Snowden chose the route for his own civil disobedience that he did.


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The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014)
US/Can release: Jun 27 2014 (VOD same day)
UK/Ire release: Aug 29 2014

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 12A (infrequent strong language, suicide references)

viewed on my iPad

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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  • RogerBW

    By current definitions he was a terrorist. So is everyone who actually does anything rather than just writing about it.

    But he was also not connected to a network of other terrorists who could provide physical or financial help, so he made a perfect example to discourage others from putting their heads over the parapet.

  • Only by current levels of racing fascism could he be deemed a terrorist. That’s not something we should let by without screaming about it.

  • RogerBW

    I absolutely agree.

  • Howard Schumann

    Just finished watching this deeply moving and powerful film. Thank you for your beautiful review.

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