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A Digital Crossroads: 'The Internet's Own Boy' Sparks an Important Conversation

By KJ Relth

Over the past year, the assumed confidentiality of our digital information has been dealt a massive blow. Our digital privacy has become a major concern ever since Edward Snowden made us all more keenly aware of the furtive activities of the National Security Agency and their PRISM surveillance program. The US Congress can no longer shrug their shoulders and continue operating under the assumption that the digital space is the Wild West, an unharnessed force incapable of effective legislation. The current climate makes it the perfect time for a film like The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. This new documentary from Brian Knappenberger is just the arsenal the public needs to equip itself for what will clearly be a long and arduous fight.

Digital activist and pioneering programmer Aaron Swartz's story should not just be filed away in the annals of history on net neutrality and open access. It should be viewed as a cautionary tale of what might continue to happen if Congress doesn't act—and act fast. Due to the laws set by the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Swartz's attempt to make academic journals available to the masses was met with heavy felony charges, on a par with identity theft and credit card fraud. Under surveillance by the FBI and facing Federal prosecution for 13 felony counts, Swartz fought the charges for two years. But the pressure on him was just too much; on January 11, 2013, at age 26, he took his life.   

As the co-founder of Reddit and one of the key architects of RSS, Swartz was simply trying to make information more transparent. The title of the film evokes the shock of anyone who's suffered a tragic loss, almost as if to ask, "How could this have happened to one of our own?" We spoke to director Brian Knappenberger about why Swartz's story needed to be humanized, and how this film is just the beginning of a most important conversation.


Aaron Swartz, from Brian Knappenberger's The Internet's Own Boy.


Documentary: Right before I called you this morning, I heard on the radio that hackers had stolen the login information for 650,000 users in the Domino's Pizza system in France and Belgium and are now demanding a ransom for the return of this information. It struck me just how different this kind of offense is from the one that Aaron was charged with, yet somehow our government assumed that his was also a terrorist act.

Brian Knappenberger: Exactly. One particularly stark example of this is that Aaron's prosecutor, Stephen Heymann, his previous case was against the notorious hacker Alberto Gonzales. There has rarely been a more mercenary hacker, somebody whose primary motive has been money. He's one of the most notorious credit card hackers of all time. So that's the case that Heymann did right before Aaron was arrested. Presumably, that's the mindset he comes into this case with. He gets a lot of accolades for the Alberto Gonzales case; he gets a lot of good press.

D: Most of us entered into Aaron's story through online sources and through the media, and it was often difficult to keep the details straight. Your film does a great job of humanizing this story and humanizing Aaron. It gets the story from people who weren't allowed to speak before, or maybe those whom the media wasn't interested in talking to.

BK: There's a lot of stuff written about Aaron right after his death. Some of it was pretty good; it's just that it was all kind of glimpses of what this person was. Somebody took on the depression element, someone took the prosecution, [and] somebody else would maybe talk a little bit about online stuff. But it was just these tiny little glimpses of this big story. That's definitely one of the reasons why I wanted to tell the big epic arc of this remarkable person's life.


Aaron Swartz as a young child.


D: This film could have been just another biodoc about anyone in Silicon Valley, but The Internet's Own Boy goes deeper than that. It adds to this conversation about technology, and it considers technology as a part of our civil liberties. You made We Are Legion, the film about [the hackers collective] Anonymous, before this, so it's clear that our digital rights are important to you. What do you hope this film adds to the conversation about technology and our civil liberties?

BK: As a filmmaker, you are looking for these personal stories that you find compelling and really move you. The great thing about Aaron's story is that he was involved in so many interesting and relevant things that it let me use it as a launching point to get into these issues that he cared about that I think are really relevant to our moment.

I want people to walk away from this film thinking that our criminal justice system is broken, because it is. I want people to walk away understanding that some of the laws that govern our activity online are just wildly outdated—laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). But I also think that part of what Aaron's story does is ask the question, What kind of Internet do we want? We are all at a crossroads right now. Do we want it to be a tool for government surveillance? Do we want it to be a tool for corporations to extract private data from us with the sole purpose of selling us new things? Do we want it to be an Internet where corporations decide the speed in the net neutrality debate? Do we want a two-tiered Internet—a fast lane for the one percent, a dirt road for the rest of us? Do we want it to be an Internet where oppressive regimes can track down and squash their dissidents? Or do we want it to be an Internet that we use as a tool to claw ourselves back from those repressive regimes; a tool for creativity and expression that lives up to the kind of potential that we all believed it could be; a tool for government transparency; and a tool to really determine the knowledge of our world and how best to govern ourselves? That's the choice we face.

The Internet is every part of our lives. Everybody lives these massively networked lives in which every important piece has an online component. The question is, How do we want that data used? How do we want our lives and our Internet moving forward? The Internet is a machine made of code and laws, and you get a say in it.

D: We're lucky to have a bit of an advantage in that we live in a country where we have unbridled access, whereas other parts of the world might not. We bear a lot responsibility for determining these outcomes.

BK: I think that's true. A lot of the Internet kind of exists in the United States. A lot of the services other people around the world use are housed here. That's changed and certainly been questioned in the Edward Snowden debate , considering we have this one agency that's interpreted our laws in such a way that they get to collect our information and conduct mass, suspicionless surveillance on us that has scared everybody, including people around the world who have their data stored in the United States. The other thing we have in the United States is the Constitution, and we have the Fourth Amendment, [which] says you can't be searched without due process. There's a very clear contradiction between what's happening and what our basic laws of this country are. So we also have this tool to fight back. We have to use that.

D: You started working on this film after Aaron had passed away. Of course, you went into editing having the timeline of his life in front of you, but how did you bring the arc of this film together? Did the script come together in the editing room?

BK: I like to do a lot of research before I even start filming. I like to really understand the story that I'm going after so that I know the most about the subject while I'm interviewing. I spend a lot of time with those transcripts [of the interviews] just on paper, looking at them and understanding beat by beat what those interviews are telling me and where the most important part of the stories are. I let the conversations that I have with people really inform the script.

D: Is it just you sitting down with subjects, or does your producer step in and take over sometimes?

BK: I almost always conduct the interviews myself. Since I'm conducting them, I remember people's energy. I remember the flow of the interview. I spend a lot of time just with me sitting with transcripts and creating a kind of string-out. I've just found that saves an enormous amount of time and I can solve a lot of the biggest problems before we even get into editing. Once you get into editing, if you're not prepared for editing, it can start to take a lot of time, particularly if you are making changes. If you are heading in one direction and you have to shift gears while you're in editing, it's a big shift to turn around. So I work a lot with transcripts in script form. I usually have people string out my scripts, and then I watch them and cut them down from there. I think what distinguishes the way I work is that I tend to do a lot of research before I shoot—or at least understand a story before I shoot—and give the interviews the widest possible latitude to go where the story seems to want to go, and then do a lot of work before I go into editing.

D: The interview with [Harvard Law School professor and Creative Commons founder] Lawrence Lessig made me really emotional because he's such a well-regarded figure in online activism and digital rights, and we see him so upset about Aaron's death. What were the more difficult interviews for you to conduct?


Lawrence Lessig (left) with a 12-yeard-old Aaron Swartz.


BK: It is tough. That was a hard interview. My interviews are kind of long. I like to have it be a conversation. I think it's hard for everybody because we'd made this film so quickly after they had lost someone that they had really, truly loved. I was really respectful about that. It was tough for anybody to open up. It took courage, especially for Aaron's family, to open up to me. I'm really grateful that they did. I have this feeling that good films come out of courage.

D: We talked a bit before about what this film adds to the conversation about technology and our rights, but what has happened legislatively since Aaron's passing and the making of this film? I know that Aaron's Law—which seeks to amend the CFAA—was introduced in Congress, but that was almost a year and a half ago. What is the status of that? Do you think that this film will change hearts and minds on Capitol Hill?

BK: Aaron's Law has stalled out. I think Aaron's story did begin to change hearts and minds, and I hope the film takes that to another level when it's released. It certainly has so far with audiences. There are a lot of battles to continue, and Aaron's Law is certainly one of them. Aaron's Law is meant to correct the worst parts of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, this awful, ridiculous law from the '80s, made after the movie War Games. That primary law that's used to prosecute these kinds of crimes really hasn't had any major revisions to it since 1986.

I think almost anybody understands that our lives have changed in terms of the networked ways in which we communicate and the ways we use online computer systems and networked systems. Our lives have changed dramatically since 1986—no one even knew what the Internet was back then! For that to still be the same law is atrocious. To not have any real update to that law is absurd. But the problem is, it stalled out, partly because of tech companies. They use the big, broad vagueness of that law to go after their smaller competitors or to prosecute people on their networks that they don't like, [who are] using their networks in ways that they don't like. This is the battle that we're facing. It's a broad law that can pretty much entrap anybody.

D: This is obviously something that you find very important and is something we should all be thinking a lot more about, because we all are connected to this. The further we move into history, the more interconnected our lives will be with technology.

BK: We talked earlier about this choice that we face, right? The Internet is not this distant realm of geeks and hackers anymore. It's where we live. We all get to participate in this discussion about where we all want it to go. And by the way, it's past time that members of Congress should be legislating on things that they don't understand, or that they can't be bothered to even do the basic research on! This is absurd, that people are creating laws and voting on laws, and they can't even be bothered to understand the ramifications of what they are doing. The Jon Stewart mashup that we use in the film says it fairly well. He cuts together all of these clueless members of Congress saying, "Let's bring in some help explain this to us." And of course, the punchline is, "I think the word you're looking for is experts."

It's not like somehow our lives are separate from the Internet. Who would argue that? It's not some weird, distant realm that we don't participate in. It's the main place where we spend all of our time. Every important part of our lives has an online component to it. Everything. All relationships, all banking, all political causes, all creativity—everything! It's time to decide what kind of protections we want, and what kind of Internet we want it to be.  


The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz opens in Los Angeles on June 26 and in New York and other major cities on June 27. It will be available to stream through Vimeo On Demand, iTunes, Amazon Instant, Google Play, and others on June 27.

You can join director Brian Knappenberger, online activist Ben Swartz and software developer Noah Swartz on Thursday, June 26 at 10am PT/1pm ET for an AMA on Reddit.

Katharine Relth is the Digital Communications Manager for the International Documentary Association.