In his documentary The Internet’s Own Boy, Brian Knappenberger provides a compelling account of the life of pioneering technical prodigy and Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who died in early 2013. Before Swartz died by suicide at the age of 26, he had gained renown as co-author of RSS version 1.0, one of the early architects of Creative Commons, developer of the Internet Archives’ Open Library, and co-founder of Reddit. Swartz was also a tireless Internet activist and advocate for political transparency, social justice and civil liberty, and against Internet censorship. To this end, he founded Demand Progress, an organization that played a major role in defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
The last two years of Swartz’s life were marred by a protracted legal battle stemming from federal indictments on 13 felony charges, for using MIT’s computer network to download 4.8 million articles and documents from JSTOR, a non-profit digital library of academic journals, books and primary sources. Was the government too aggressive in its prosecution, or justified? In addition to tracing Swartz’s evolution as a technical genius and activist, the film explores these questions and the complex technical legal and technical issues surrounding the indictments, most of which involved violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
The CFAA Controversy: Internet Freedom versus National Security and Business Interests
The CFAA (U.S.C. § 1030), originally enacted in 1986, makes it a federal crime to “access a computer without authorization or exceeding authorized access.” Dubbed informally as the “federal anti-hacking law,” the CFAA does not narrowly define what “without authorization” or “exceeding authorized access” means. In addition, punishments for violating CFAA are harsh, with up to five years in prison for a first offense. The CFAA’s combination of vague wording, sweeping scope and harsh penalties have generated heated controversy.
On one side of the controversy are Internet activists, legal scholars, legislators and others who consider the CFAA an overreaching, draconian law that flies in the face of Internet users’ basic rights and liberties. On the other side of the controversy are the government and corporations, constituencies with a primary concern in protecting highly sensitive data from malicious hackers.
United States v. Swartz: Did the Proposed Punishment Fit the Crime?
Although Swartz returned the hard drives that contained the downloaded content to JSTOR and JSTOR declined to pursue legal action against him, the U.S. Justice Department aggressively pursued their case, charging him with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the CFAA. The CFAA violations included computer fraud, obtaining information through unauthorized access to a protected computer, and computer damage. If convicted, Swartz would have faced up to 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million.
The biggest objections that Internet activists, scholars and others have, including a number of individuals interviewed for the documentary, concern the extent to which the U.S. Justice Department seemed determined to punish Swartz. They argue that the charges against Swartz were overly harsh and punitive, particularly because Swartz would be labeled as a felon for life and incur prison time.
In the wake of Swartz’s death, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif) submitted a bill to reform the CFAA. Named “Aaron’s Law” after Swartz, the bill is currently stuck in Congress and faces an uncertain future.
Hard to Watch, Well-Worth Watching
The documentary’s portrayal of Swartz is sympathetic and the film is, for the most part, well-paced. Following a traditional chronological flow, Knappenberger weaves talking head interviews, public footage, personal footage provided by Swartz’s family, establishing shots, and close-ups of legal documentation and code into a cohesive whole that balances the personal, legal and technical sides of Swartz’s story. An award-winning filmmaker, Knappenberger has previous experience documenting hacker culture, with his documentary We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists.
Especially touching in The Internet’s Own Boy is the early footage of Swartz as a young boy. In this early footage, we see Swartz playing with his two brothers, reading out loud, and we learn how he talked one of his brothers into dressing up as an iMac for Halloween because it was Swartz’s favorite new computer. A clear portrait emerges of Swartz as bright, creative, insatiably curious, a born teacher and nothing if not precocious. At the age of three, he was learning how to read. By the time he was 12, Swartz had created a proto-Wikipedia site called The Info Network, for which he won the ArsDigita Prize. Called “a terrible idea” by one teacher, this early accomplishment foreshadowed the immense drive Swartz had to help ensure that knowledge was made freely available as a part of the public domain.
That the documentary features such major figures as Tim Berners-Lee and Lawrence Lessig is a testament to what Swartz accomplished during his life. These luminaries admired Swartz and publicly expressed their grief when he died. That Swartz underwent a protracted legal battle that may have contributed to his decision to end his life is a great loss and a cause for anger to many. On one level, The Internet’s Own Boy is hard to watch, given this. But it’s well worth watching, a worthy contribution to our understanding of a brilliant, sensitive and visionary Internet activist. One who became during his life, as his friend Cory Doctorow put it, “a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.”
The Internet’s Own Boy premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and was released in theaters and to video on demand in the United States on June 27, to a largely positive reception. The trailer provides a representative view of the territory that the documentary covers.