Aaron Swartz at Sundance

A new documentary, one of a dozen that premiered at the 2014 festival, tells the story of the computer whiz kid

Aaron Swartz, who was the target of government prosecution, at a Boston Wiki Meetup in 2009.
Sage Ross

PARK CITY, Utah — This month marks the first anniversary of the death of Aaron Swartz, the Internet open-access activist. Swartz, then 26, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment as he faced the possibility of 35 years in prison for downloading scholarly articles from JStor through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer servers. His alleged motivation: making them available for free to the public. A new film, “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” one of a dozen documentaries that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival here this month, chronicles Swartz’s hyperproductive young life and explores why he chose to end it.

The film, directed by Brian Knappenberger, shows Swartz taking part in conversations on reimagining the Internet with MIT academics when he still needed a stool to reach conference room microphones. At 14, Swartz helped create RSS, a tool for subscribing to online information. He later helped develop the Creative Commons alternative to copyright; founded a company, Infogami, that merged with the popular website Reddit; and established the political action group Demand Progress. He believed that information should be equally accessible, that everyone has a right to benefit from the world’s intellectual heritage.

Swartz, the film says, was concerned about government mass surveillance long before Edward Snowden leaked a trove of National Security Agency documents. In one clip, Swartz tells Russia Today, “It is shocking to think that the accountability is so lax that they don’t even have sort of basic statistics about how big the spying program is.” He goes on to say, “If the answer is, ‘Oh, we’re spying on so many people we can’t possibly even count them,’ then that’s an awful lot of people.”

Knappenberger’s film, which sometimes borders on hagiography, argues that the government wanted to make an example of Swartz. The main prosecutor in the case, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, says, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” In the film, we see how federal prosecutors created a situation for Swartz similar to Franz Kafka’s novel “The Trial,” which depicts the turmoil of an individual, Josef K., caught in a labyrinthine bureaucracy, facing allegations that defy rational explanation. Swartz, who called the book one of his favorites, wrote on his blog in 2011, “It was precisely accurate — every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isn’t fiction, but documentary.”

In the film, we learn that Swartz had growing political ambitions and the prospect of being branded a felon for a crime he didn’t believe he had committed caused him great anguish. His friend Quinn Norton recalls his telling her, “They don’t let felons work in the White House.” Swartz meanwhile kept the nature of his problems secret from those closest to him, including his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. In the documentary, she recounts how Swartz only obliquely referred to his legal troubles, waiting until the last moment to tell her. She says he tried to protect his friends and family, not wanting to give anyone information that could warrant their being called as witnesses.

Near the end of the documentary, we’re introduced to 15-year-old Jack Andraka, who recently discovered a breakthrough, low-cost pancreatic-cancer test by reading free online academic articles much like those Swartz downloaded from JStor. Andraka told the Vancouver Observer that he relied on free articles because “in most online databases, articles cost about $35 and there are only about 10 pages ... I believe (Swartz’s) actions were mostly justified. The public funded a lot of that research. It shouldn’t be held inaccessible to the public.” The film asks, How many other Andrakas could make groundbreaking medical discoveries if a world existed where access to information is treated as everyone’s birthright? But how many more Swartzes will face legal repercussions — and the accompanying despair — that comes with fighting for such a world?

Civil rights, Arab Spring

Since its start in 1980, Sundance has given a platform for films made outside the studio system; the funding for the Swartz documentary came primarily from a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised $93,000 from 1,500 people. Ten of the 15 documentaries on this year’s Oscar short list made their debuts at last year’s Sundance. Unlike other films at Sundance, “The Internet’s Own Boy” will be released under a Creative Commons license, in keeping with the spirit of Swartz’s work.

This year’s documentaries tackled the sorts of social issues that rarely get attention in the mainstream media. The film “Concerning Violence” looks at the dynamics of colonial power through the text of Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth.” The documentary “We Come As Friends” is a searing indictment of contemporary colonialism in Africa. Both “Web Junkie” and “Love Child” examine the growing problem of Internet addiction; the latter follows a South Korean couple whose obsession with online gaming causes them to starve their infant daughter.

Not all the documentaries hit their intended mark. “E-Team”  looks at Western human-rights workers on the ground, exalting their sacrifices at the expense of sidelining the work of local activists who don’t have the luxury of parachuting into — and out of — conflict zones. The documentary “We Are the Giant” gives voice to the participants of the Arab Spring without providing viewers with a framework for understanding the movement’s accomplishments, given the continued turmoil in the region. And “Return to Homs” provides horrifying raw footage of the Syrian conflict from the viewpoint of anti-government rebels but fails to include any criticism of the increasingly fractured and militarized resistance movement.

The isolation felt by Swartz contrasts with the experiences of activists in two other documentaries premiering at Sundance. “Freedom Summer” depicts civil rights activists who risked their lives to challenge racism in Mississippi in 1964. They banded together, traveled with one another and faced hostile police arm in arm. “Cesar’s Last Fast” shows how the legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez fought to protect the rights of his fellow farm workers and bring attention to the dangers of pesticides by fasting for 36 days in 1988. He initially hid his fast from other activists, but his wife soon publicized it, and people subsequently rallied at his side. Both films show how dissidents challenged the status quo by working together and — most crucially — bearing witness to one another’s suffering. Internet-freedom activists today may work together, the Swartz film shows, but they rarely witness the spiral downward when one of their own is targeted. That’s perhaps ironic, in that Swartz fought tirelessly to keep the Internet from becoming an individualized, atomized place bereft of a collaborative spirit but ultimately found himself an individual whose troubles were, at least at first, largely out of sight from the cyberworld.

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