In January 2013, Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz committed suicide following a series of protracted legal battle over copyright infringement after downloading JSTOR articles. It was the tragic conclusion to years of persecution, frustration and innovation. The Internet’s Own Boy (2014) takes a close look at Swartz, both as a person and as an icon for the internet generation. Brian Knappenberger, who also directed the Anonymous documentary We Are Legion (2012), has crafted a tender portrait which tries to look beyond the screen. Swartz was an adorable child who grew into a socially frustrated teenage genius, an arc portrayed through archive material and interviews with key family members and friends.
Swartz’s brother Ben is both frank and funny, and it’s clear that Aaron’s surviving family look back on these early, trouble-free years with a great deal of nostalgia. The knowledge of Swartz’s death looms large over these scenes, and imbues those day-to-day details with something close to an existential examination. Perhaps that’s why the documentary’s move towards a focus on Swartz’s internet endeavours comes as something of a thematic loss. The pace of the storytelling is consistently high – director Knappenberger rattles the film along, from Reddit to JSTOR to eventually SOPA – and the tale that’s being told is a fascinating one. Unfortunately, however, the human tragedy gets somewhat obscured by the global questions of privacy that The Internet’s Own Boy poses.
Knappenberger and the web activists who participate in the film are angry – they’re angry at the invasion of the Internet by the law- courts, and they’re angry at how Swartz was treated and how that ended up. When the filmmakers are so passionate about a subject, there’s an inevitable loss of objectivity. That’s not a huge problem for The Internet’s Own Boy, because the film is primarily about the tragedy of Swartz’s brief life, but the bigger issues are handled in a somewhat one-sided manner. It’s another reason why the film would have perhaps benefited from sticking closer to Swartz, and seeing his life as sufficient narrative. Of course, that would’ve meant avoiding touching upon the very subjects that Swartz spent his life arguing for, and perhaps that would’ve been an injustice to his memory.
Fittingly, for a film about internet pirates and which was funded through crowd-funding, The Internet’s Own Boy is now available to view (legally) on YouTube. That’s actually the best way to view it: it’s a film which belongs as part of the online landscape, and the YouTube viewer, which is so often a hindrance to proper viewing of videos, is a weirdly appropriate frame for the film. Modern film is such a commercialised business, that the act of undermining that seems like every bit as intentional a testament to Swartz’s vision as the film itself. Harnessed together, The Internet’s Own Boy tells the story of the dangers and power of the internet, and it becomes a compelling parable for the digital age.