Brian Knappenberger Talks The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
His new documentary about the late Internet ‘hacktivist’ calls attention to outdated laws and our problematic criminal justice system.
Unjust laws exist;
shall we be content to obey them,
or shall we endeavor to amend them,
and obey them until we have succeeded,
or shall we transgress them at once?
This quote, by Henry David Thoreau, opens a new documentary about the life of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, a programming prodigy who, after being charged on 13 felony counts for secretly downloading JSTOR files from MIT, hanged himself in January 2013.
The film offers an overview of Swartz’s extraordinary life, including home footage from his childhood; his rise to Internet stardom as a key developer of RSS, Reddit, and Creative Commons; and the criminal case set against him by the U.S. government, which many have argued was exceedingly harsh and unfair.
Aaron’s parents, Robert and Susan Swartz, are both interviewed in the film, as well his brothers, Noah and Ben Swartz. Other commentators include Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow, Tim Berners-Lee, Swartz’s former girlfriends Quinn Norton and Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, and many more.
While the film centers around Swartz’s individual story, the documentary also weaves in problems with our criminal justice system. Hence, the quote from Thoreau, commentary from folks like Bryan Stevenson, and the recurring mention of chaos between the world as it is and the world as Aaron Swartz wanted it to be.
“He was the Internet’s own boy, and the old world killed him,” says Quinn Norton in the film.
Here, director Brian Knappenberger talks about The Internet’s Own Boy, which premieres on Friday, June 27, in theaters and on demand.
You’ve directed and produced great documentaries before. What drew you to making a documentary about Aaron Swartz?
I’ve always been really interested in the dual places we are in society now. On one hand, we live these massive networks in which every part of our lives has an online component, and on the other hand, we have these “traditional values” of human rights, civil rights, and freedom of expression. It’s pretty obvious that these tectonic plates are grinding, and we’re trying to figure out this new world we’re living in. That’s why I think hacker stories are where the tension is the greatest.
I was talking about hackers and hacktivism on a panel right after Aaron died, in New York, and on the panel with me was Quinn Norton, an ex-girlfriend of his. Everybody at this event seemed to know Aaron or had a story of him. I started filming right away, and a couple months later realized I was making a full-length feature film about him. I was already interested and fired up about the political causes he was engaged in, but there’s something very inspiring, compelling, and ultimately tragic about his story. That’s really was made me think I had to tell the bigger story.
There’s a scene about an hour in when you show a stormy scene of Boston while Quinn is talking about how upset she was with the government over her proffer [or "Queen for a Day"] deal to give information about Swartz. Did you view that as a turning point in the narrative?
It was certainly a very, very intense time. I think that was the moment when they were all aware that the government was taking this really, really seriously and that they potentially faced some very serious trouble. It did seem like a turning point in lots of different ways. It was a very dark time, and I think it split [Aaron and Quinn] up as a couple. There’s a sense that maybe Aaron was aware he might’ve been doing something wrong, putting himself on the line—he certainly was willing to do that. But the idea that it was going to be four felonies, and then upped to 13 felonies, that they weren’t going to ever budge, that they were going to push for felony the whole time—that all started to unravel at right about that point.
And what was it like talking with Aaron’s family and friends?
You know, I’m telling the whole arc of Aaron’s life, and so I do talk to his family about happier times, and yet it’s all obviously very tough for them, and his mom breaks down at the end of course. But I didn’t push for huge melodrama. I tried to capture the emotional aspects of the story without dwelling on it too much. I think they’re composed, but torn. They desperately want to tell the story and explain its importance, and they’re still infuriated by the prosecution, but at the same time, they’re holding back the personal hell that they’re going through.
Related: Bob Swartz on “Losing Aaron”
Aside from getting to know the name Aaron Swartz, what’s the one message you want people to leave the film with?
There isn’t just one—Aaron was interested in so many things that I hope there’s a number of things people walk away with.
(1) For me, there are the things that happened to him: the prosecution, and what those events reveal—we basically have a broken criminal justice system. We’ve given prosecutors so much power over defendants, and they leverage that power to break people and force them to plea. And they do, 97 percent of people in our criminal justice system plead out and only 3 percent go to trial—there’s mass incarceration in our country. We’re at a point where that needs to be fixed, and we should be outraged about that.
(2) The other thing is that computer laws are way out of date. The CFAA [Computer Fraud and Abuse Act], the justification for bringing 11 of the 13 charges against Aaron, hasn’t had any meaningful changes since 1986. It was made after the movie War Games. Obviously our lives have changed a lot since then. So for this big catchall law, that can pretty much get anybody, to not have changed is obviously dangerous and prone to misuse.
(3) And there’s also what Aaron did. He made a decisive turn when he was a rich 19-year-old to turn away from Silicon Valley culture and put his skills in the public good, to use his gift to try to solve the world’s problems. That’s a really admirable choice to make in a culture now that values building and flipping, going on the the next, and making more money. And you don’t have to be a genius hacker to do it. Everybody has skills they can put into the public interest in some way.
If people feel like that when they walk out, I’ll feel good.
Was there anything you wanted to include in the documentary, but for some reason was left out?
Obviously there are lots of problems with the criminal justice system we could have expanded on, but maybe that’s just my next documentary.
The real frustrating thing was that the government didn’t talk to us. I really wish they would’ve talked to us. I think they should talk to us. They told Aaron’s dad that they were going to make an example out of Aaron, that they needed a case for deterrence. Deterrence is a way of communicating to a community, “Don’t do this.” It’s a message. If presumably they did all this to send a message, what was the message? We have a right to know.
That’s by far the most frustrating thing that’s not in the documentary, but they unfortunately haven’t talked to anybody about the case, and have this knee-jerk tendency toward secrecy. But we’re owed an answer—two years, a legal nightmare, and now we can barely get a statement.
And MIT didn’t comment either, right?
The faculty and students were very, very supportive of the film and of Aaron’s story, but what I wanted was the administration and the general counsel’s office, and they both declined. We’re going to take the film to MIT, hopefully fill the biggest hall they got, and hopefully have a big conversation about it in the fall.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, premieres in theaters and on demand Friday, June 27, and will be shown at Somerville Theatre. For more information, visit takepart.com.