The Arty Semite

Aaron Swartz Story Comes to Sundance

By Piya Sinha-Roy

  • Print
  • Share Share

(Reuters) — A year after Internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide, a new documentary brings to light the young computer prodigy’s earnest battle to bring online freedom of access to information for everyone.

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday and director Brian Knappenberger was joined by Swartz’s father Robert and two brothers, Noah and Ben, all of whom received a standing ovation.

“It’s unbelievably hard for us, but Aaron is dead, there’s nothing we can do about that,” Swartz’s father told the audience, saying he hoped the film would raise awareness of Aaron’s activism and encourage others to fight on his behalf.

Swartz died aged 26 in his Brooklyn, New York apartment on January 11, 2013, after facing felony charges brought by a federal grand jury that included theft, wire fraud and computer fraud.

The federal indictment said Swartz, a fellow at Harvard University, had downloaded millions of articles and journals from digital archive JSTOR through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology servers. Swartz, who pleaded not guilty to all counts, faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted.

In the film, which is a contender in Sundance’s U.S. documentary competition, Knappenberger focuses on Swartz’s intellect and growing political ambitions, with interviews that shed insight into his personality from Swartz’s family, friends and colleagues.

This is the second film by Knappenberger exploring those on the fringes of the Internet. His first film, “We Are the Legion,” about the online Anonymous hacktivist group, premiered at the underground Slamdance film festival that runs alongside Sundance, in 2012.

“The Internet’s Own Boy,” financed by crowd-sourced funding website Kickstarter, where more than 1,500 backers raised $93,000, will be released under a Creative Commons license allowing others to build off Knappenberger’s work, in the spirit of Swartz’s desire for free, open and accessible content for all.

The film begins with family footage of a young and mischievous Swartz, playing with his two brothers, reading books and expressing curiosity in the world around him.

Swartz’s early life was dominated by his superior intellect and his love of computers. His brotherBen explained Swartz was drawn to coding as he felt like it was “magic, and could be used to solve anything.”

Soon, a young Swartz was attending meetings and panels for computer programming, setting up an online crowd-sourced encyclopedia, and co-authoring the Web feed RSS 1.0, which would help users collate summaries of the latest headlines from their favorite websites onto one page.

Much of the film focuses on Swartz’s political activism after he parted ways in 2007 with Reddit, a user-submitted news and entertainment social platform that he co-founded, and became engrossed with copyright laws.

Swartz’s efforts to bring what he felt were public access documents to the mass public for free, including approximately 19 million court documents from the PACER case-law website, made him an online icon.

Swartz was also instrumental in campaigning against the Stop Online Piracy Act, a controversial U.S. bill that would have allowed court orders to curb access to certain websites deemed to be engaging in illegal sharing of intellectual property. The bill was later withdrawn.

Many of Swartz’s friends and collaborators, including Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, criticized the charges brought against Swartz, blaming the prosecutors for trying to make Swartz an example case for hackers.

Lessig teared up when talking about Swartz’s death, saying he had “never lost anybody in this way before.”

“The movie brings out the fact that the criminal justice system is broken, and that one needs criminal justice reform,” Swartz’s father passionately told the audience.

“The fact that over 90 percent of people indicted plead guilty, and over 90 percent who go to trial are convicted, means that the presumption of innocence no longer exists in our system,” he said.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, Sundance, Film, Documentaries, Brian Knappenberger, Aaron Swartz

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.