In the documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy,” filmmaker Brian Knappenberger tells the story of Aaron Swartz, a computer programmer and internet “hacktivist” from Chicago who was arrested in January 2011 and charged with a litany of felonies by federal authorities after breaking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloading large amounts of the school’s academic journals. Swartz, a co-creator of the website Reddit and someone who helped develop the web feed format RSS, felt academic journals like the ones housed at MIT should be available free of charge to anyone who wanted to use them.
Federal prosecutors went after Swartz hard. Many argue the state only wanted to make an example of Swartz and didn’t have a strong case against him. With a possible maximum sentence of 50 years in prison looming over his head, the weight of the indictment became too much for Swartz to handle. Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11, 2013. He was 26.
During an interview with Knappenberger via phone last week, we talked about how the term “hacker” has become useless over the last few years and what kind of legacy he thinks Swartz has left behind. Knappenberger also tells me what question he’d like to ask Stephen Heymann, the main prosecutor in charge of the case. Heymann, along with representatives from MIT, declined to be interviewed for the film.
“The Internet’s Own Boy” will screen exclusively at the Santikos Bijou on Wednesday, July 2 at 7:00 pm and Thursday, July 3 at 9:30 pm.
As a filmmaker, what do you want viewers to feel as you tell Aaron’s story? For me, I was completely frustrated watching everything unfold. When it was over, I felt very angry. Do you hope others go through those kinds of emotions or do you want everyone to have their own personal experience?
I think everyone will have their own feelings about the case. It is frustrating to watch and some people might get angry about what happened. But I really hope people are inspired, as well, with the choices [Aaron] made. They are pretty interesting and relevant.
The term “hacker” has a very negative connotation to it these days. I think most people imagine some guy in his basement breaking into banks or hacking into peoples’ Facebook accounts. What do you want people to know about the other side of hacking that made Aaron such a different example?
This is my second film about “hackers.” I think it’s a useless term in some ways. The broadness of the term can be use to describe any sort of subcategory of activity. I mean, you have the [Rupert] Murdoch phone hacking scandal, which had nothing to do with computers or hacking at all. Then there are criminal hackers and credit card hackers and Facebook hackers, like you said. The original definition of a “hacker” is someone who is really creative with existing systems and has fun in making them do new things. The term “hacker” started back in the 50s at MIT and it’s changed a lot since then.
A part of the film I thought was really effective was showing how politicians, who are making major decisions on issues dealing with technology, don’t really understand how technology works. That’s pretty scary when you think about it.
Right, it sort of underlines the difference that we have between understanding the internet and living in the internet. The internet isn’t some far off realm of geeks and hackers. It’s a place where we all live. It’s a very important part of our lives. I think hacking is very different now. I think people are starting to realize they have a voice in this. They don’t have to be a computer genius. What needs to happen is that Congress and lawmakers need to realize that it’s not OK to not understand the internet. It’s something they are legislating, so they need to understand it.
Aaron’s family gave you such great access to themselves as well as family videos. How close did you become to them and did that put added pressure on you to do Aaron’s story justice?
Yeah, Aaron’s family was very generous with their time and obviously to allow me to use some of their early footage of Aaron. It does so much to humanize him and show who he was. It wouldn’t be the same film if it didn’t have that. I couldn’t have made this film without their cooperation. I really believe it took courage for them to talk to me. They lost their son. It was going to be hard for them to relive it. I know they certainly felt a degree of anger and frustration.
It would’ve also been a different film if you had done it five years later instead of just a year later. I mean, everything is just so fresh on their minds. You really feel that from the family and others.
Yeah, I mean we premiered this film at Sundance within a week of the one year anniversary of Aaron’s death. We were talking to people soon after they lost someone they loved. It takes courage to do that. It’s hard. I feel so lucky that so many people felt I was worthy to tell this story. It gives you that extra motivation – if you needed it – to just get it right.
During this entire process, did you ever speculate what would have happened had Aaron’s case gone to trial?
Yeah, it’s impossible not to sort of speculate a little bit. Aaron’s attorney at the time, Elliot Peters, says in the film that he thought they had a pretty good chance. He thought they had a pretty good case that he hadn’t done anything wrong.
If you got a chance to ask prosecutor Stephen Heymann a question, what would you ask him about the case?
I would’ve asked him what he was thinking. I think one of the most critical questions at the heart of this film is a very mysterious thing he said to Aaron’s dad, which was that [the prosecution] needed a case for deterrence. They wanted to make an example out of Aaron. They said this directly to Aaron’s dad. I would like to know what that case was going to be. It’s very mysterious. I would like to know what kind of example they were trying to make. If you think about it, deterrence is a message to a community. It’s saying we’re going to put your head on a stake at the front gate and say, “Don’t go there.” They wanted to send a message that this behavior is wrong. But what specifically was wrong?
Is there a legacy you feel Aaron is going to leave behind, or is that still going to take some time to evolve since this happened so recently?
He’s leaving behind a legacy that I hope sparks change in the overwrought criminal justice system that his case exposes. I hope people see the things that he did. He was a powerful political organizer. He was using the internet in grassroots political movements. He cared about social change and new technology. He was ahead of us. That’s just not a comfortable place to be in our society sometimes. I hope his legacy is that people can continue that fight. They don’t have to be a genius hacker or a programmer or a coder. Whatever their skills are, they can turn them towards the public good and use them in the service of public interest.