Aaron Swartz was a talented coder, programmer and entrepreneur from a young age, helping create revolutionary internet protocols at just 14 years old.
He went on to co-found Reddit and became a prominent figure in the tech community and “hacktivist” movement. From 2011 to 2013, Swartz was involved in a lengthy legal battle regarding the alleged illegal downloading of a large number of JSTOR academic journal articles. However, he never went to court, tragically ending his own life in 2013 after years of negotiations.
In the years before his death, Swartz was involved in activist campaigns aimed at maintaining a free and open Internet. He was an important figure in the victory against the Stop Online Piracy Act and harnessed the power of the Internet to gain widespread support.
We spoke to Brian Knappenberger, activist and director of the documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.
How did you come across Aaron’s story?
I was following Aaron’s story right from when he was first arrested, which was the beginning of a two-year legal battle. Surprisingly, not many people were covering his story or paying much attention to it at the time. I was, because I had been following many hackers and activists who had run afoul with the law.
I was at a panel in New York City a week after Aaron died, and on the panel with me was Quinn Norton, his ex-girlfriend, along with some other people who had known Aaron. They were dealing with this personal loss of someone they loved very much, so I just started filming right then. I began to try to understand the depth of Aaron’s story and also why so many people, even people who didn’t know him personally, were responding to his death.
You’ve written and produced other documentaries about hackers, but The Internet’s Own Boy is more personal. What was it about Aaron’s story that motivated you to make a film about him?
I think his story is a personal story, and as a documentary filmmaker that’s exactly what you’re looking for – a personal story that gets into larger, relevant issues. I was really moved by Aaron’s story, his tenacity, his curiosity, his desire to solve big problems, his ambition and his insight. And it was also the tragedy of what happened to him, the forces that acted on him in the form of a justice system that was just out of control. It was this personal story of an impressive individual who was just chewed up and spit out of an outdated system.
How can we follow in Aaron’s footsteps and use the Internet as a tool for social change?
We use the Internet in all sorts of ways. Now, any cause you care about will start online, be communicated online, and be organised online. We’re seeing that more and more actually; it’s really exciting. The example that we use in the film is SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act. It’s rare that a cause like SOPA – at first just backed by people in a sort of grassroots movement – would win against the massive forces of money overwhelming our system. The way you learn democracy is supposed to work is that when you care about a cause, you can start a grassroots movement and hopefully influence your legislators. It’s just that it doesn’t actually work that way.
The Internet has provided us with this possibility where the system can work the way it’s supposed to work. Where everybody can have that kind of voice. You see that for SOPA, and you see that in such a huge way today in the Net Neutrality debate.
Right, the Net Neutrality vote happened today.
Yes, and it’s amazing that this happened. Now many people might be looking back at this and going, “Cool, this sounds like it’s right,” but today is a product of years and years of fighting for this issue. And it’s an important issue: keeping the Internet level so everybody’s voice gets heard. Everybody gets an equal shot to have their arguments win on merit, not on speed or because there’s money backing it. This is a really big deal. This is what happens when people show up and care about an issue.
We see a similar theme in The Internet’s Own Boy with the SOPA issue as well. What are the other main things you want people to take away from the film?
There are a couple things. First of all, our justice system is broken. We have imprisoned way too many of our own citizens. 2.3 million people are in jails and prisons in the United States, and another 5 million are under the control of the criminal justice system through probation or parole. That makes us the highest rate of incarceration in the world, maybe even in history. It’s an out of control system, and I hope people walk away from the film outraged by it.
I want people to be inspired by Aaron; who he was as an individual was important. He believed you could stand up for what you think is right. He believed that you could dedicate your life to try and make change in the world and that there were creative, new ways to make these changes.
You recently won a Writer’s Guild Award for Documentary Screenplay, congratulations! How has the overall response to the film been?
The response to this film has been overwhelming. Millions of people all over the world have seen it, and many have conducted their own screenings in universities and libraries all over. We’re very honoured for the accolades we’ve received. It means a lot that people are responding to Aaron’s story. It shows that people care about Internet issues, they care about civil liberties in the digital age, and they’re inspired by somebody who’s willing to go up against this corrupt system and try to find solutions.