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Critics' Pick The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

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The Internet

In January 2013, an incandescently brilliant American political activist and computer programmer named Aaron Swartz (a cofounder of Reddit) was hounded to suicide by an overzealous U.S. Attorney. Anyone who argues differently has a desk drawer full of government paystubs.

Brian Knappenberger's The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz connects the dots of Swartz's past, assembling a vivid portrait of a sensitive genius with a strong moral sense. The film incorporates interviews with his friends, family, and a range of digital luminaries. Knappenberger documents Swartz's growth from technologist to activist: He founded the online group that derailed the supposedly unstoppable Stop Online Piracy Act. Swartz was also grappling with prosecutors who had decided that one of his projects was illegal.

Swartz, a research fellow at Harvard, had authorized access to the digital library JSTOR, and he used the MIT computer network to download an immense number of academic articles, the crime the Justice Department pursued. Knappenberger's interviewees all strike similar tones of disbelief at the scope of the accusations made by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who threatened Swartz with $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison. Terrified of the impending penalties, Swartz hanged himself.

What Swartz intended to do with the articles remains unknown, but there are possibilities; he had evinced frustration over the years that publicly funded studies were locked away in subscription archives. At the funeral, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, who literally invented the World Wide Web, reads a poem he wrote for Swartz. That's likely to be a more enduring testimony to Swartz's character than the word of a bureaucrat who wielded the law like a cudgel and was surprised that it can actually kill.

Chris Packham

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