PARK CITY, Utah — Almost a year to the day after his death, Aaron Swartz has come to life again on the screens of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. But which Swartz are moviegoers weeping for, the man or the icon? The frail young suicide or the fighter for electronic freedoms? Does it matter? Should it matter?
Based on what he’s put on the screen, Brian Knappenberger, director of the new documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” may not see much of a difference.
Swartz, 26, hanged himself Jan. 11, 2013, as federal prosecutors working in the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts continued to pursue a case in which the young computer programmer and Internet activist was charged. His alleged crime: using MIT’s computer network to download millions of documents from JSTOR, a database of academic publications, with the aim of distributing them freely across the Net. His maximum potential punishment: $1 million in fines and 50 years in prison on two felony counts and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
In the wake of Swartz’s death, the wired world exploded in mourning and anger. He was not only the teen prodigy who had co-created the Web news feeder RSS and the essential Internet water-cooler site Reddit, he was known and loved by almost everyone who mattered at the intersections of technology, progressive activism, and Net freedom. The 2012 defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act — a bill assumed to be headed for passage in the House of Representatives even by those who decried it as draconian — was sparked and spearheaded in no small part by Swartz’s efforts. He seemed headed for greater things, perhaps even public office. And then he was dead.
In the year since, Swartz has become a focal point for social and political change among a generation of young, wired progressives, their communal grief serving as an engine for recruitment and political change. Now he’s the subject of a documentary that stands to reach a wider audience, one that may be touched, outraged, and moved to action by the film’s portrait of an Internet butterfly crushed on the wheel of the US justice system.
The film arrived at Sundance seeking a theatrical distributor and left with lots of buzz but no bite as of yet. After the first festival screening on Jan. 20 — the teary sold-out audience peppered the director with questions: Why didn’t I know about this? What can we do to further Aaron’s mission? How can I get involved?
Impassioned, persuasive, and well made, “The Internet’s Own Boy” formalizes the narrative of Swartz as martyr, even as it provides a sweeping overview of his life and accomplishments. That overview ranges from adorable toddler videos to footage of technology conferences, where the 13-year-old held court with programmers four times his age, to his evolution into a thoughtful, earnest activist at the front lines of the battle for electronic democracy.
Knappenberger, whose last film was 2012’s “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists,” is a considered partisan.
“I think the best journalism has a point of view,” he said in an interview the afternoon following the premiere. “It tries to rigorously explore all the elements, including dissenting views — but it’s clear that I’m on one side of this argument.”
He’s holding forth in a crowded Main Street brew and burger joint a day after that first screening, surrounded by chic festivalgoers and grizzled Rocky Mountain locals. Across the table, emotionally spent, out of their element, and picking at french fries, sit Swartz’s father, Robert, and brothers Noah and Ben, all of whom accompanied the film to its Sundance premiere.
They and Swartz’s mother, Susan — who declined to make the trip from Highland Park, Ill., — are interviewed at length in “The Internet’s Own Boy,” speaking to Swartz’s life and legacy. (The family has no financial interest in the film, which was funded primarily through an online Kickstarter campaign.) Off-camera, they’re shyer but no less committed to carrying on his work, and they look at the film as a public memorial separate from their private loss.
Said Noah Swartz, the bearded middle son, “I sat for three hours in a room, I talked candidly — maybe more candidly than I should have — and Brian turned it into a good film. Since then, I’ve thought a bit about what I hope the film can accomplish, which is to educate people that there are ways that they can be powerful, in the sense that Aaron wanted to be powerful, in shaping the world to be a better place.”
While he holds down an unspecified “boring day job,” Noah’s main activity — particularly since his older brother’s death — is organizing worldwide “hackathons” in which young digerati “who also have boring day jobs and want to know how they can become involved in nonprofits or activist groups can get their hands dirty and meet people whose day job is to be an activist.”
Brother Ben writes code for a living and is involved in online activism that “I unfortunately can’t talk about. You can refer to it, maybe, as freeing a large source of Web history.”
And Robert Swartz continues to earn a living as a technology consultant for MIT, particularly ironic given that the institute on the Charles is blamed by many of Aaron Swartz’s defenders for delivering him to the feds. (Asked how it is to work for MIT, the patriarch just says: “Difficult.”)
Knappenberger did approach people at MIT, including Hal Abelson, a renowned professor, open source advocate, and author of a July 2013 report that absolved MIT of legal blame in the affair. Abelson declined to be interviewed for the film, as did others at the school. Contacted by the Globe, Abelson responded via e-mail, “When Brian asked me to appear in it, I thought it would be best to let my report speak for itself.”
Asked whether there was a larger in-house discussion about Abelson or others participating in the film, a spokeswoman for MIT said, “Faculty members make their own decisions about whether to participate in films and other media opportunities.”
The filmmaker approached the prosecutors as well, hoping to speak to assistant US attorney Stephen Heymann (who led the case against Swartz) or his boss, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz. “No statement, nothing,” says Knappenberger. “And there was substantial work that went into trying.”
Contacts at database JSTOR, which had already dropped charges against Swartz before his death, also proved unhelpful. “I didn’t get a full-throated decline, but I got obfuscation,” said Knappenberger.
Contacted by the Globe, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office had “no comment on the film or the case.”
By contrast, dozens of Swartz’s friends and colleagues lined up to commemorate him in the film, including Harvard professor and copyright activist Lawrence Lessig and other leading lights of the Internet and activist arenas. David Segal, a young politician and cofounder with Swartz of the group Demand Progress, saw his interview land on the cutting room floor, but his only concern was that his friend be portrayed as he was.
“I think Aaron would only be satisfied with a portrayal of Aaron of himself that was actually accurate,” Segal said. “He wouldn’t want anything that was falsely adulatory.”
“The Internet’s Own Boy” is glowing enough as it tries to convey what Aaron Swartz did in his life and what he means to the near future and beyond. But is it true to who Swartz was as a person? Noah Swartz thinks so. “[The movie] shows his energy and his sweetness, and his deep caring and intensity with regards to how he wanted to change the world. I think that’s the Aaron we all knew.”
With the long view of a father, Robert Swartz responds differently. “It reflects Aaron well, but only a certain part. What doesn’t shine through well enough is how well liked he was and how many friends he had. There are tons of people who are doing interesting work who looked to Aaron as a friend and close colleague. If there’s any private part that’s missing, it’s that.”
None of the Swartzes expect any admission of overzealousness on the part of MIT or federal prosecutors. Instead, they speak of continuing Aaron’s work. Pressed for specifics, Robert said, “I’d like to see the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act repealed. I’d like to see open access for all academics. I’d like to see real and substantive change at MIT so these things can’t happen again. I’d like to see the criminal justice system change so that there’s a presumption of innocence in the United States.”
Noah Swartz cuts in at this point. “I think Dad cares more about seeing substantive change in the world than getting anything personally out of it. And I think we all feel this way. A lot of bullheaded, short-sighted decisions were made on the part of many people in this — at MIT, in the government — and we’d rather see them not be made again than to have an apology.”Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.