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

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

2014, Society  -   91 Comments
Ratings: 8.63/10 from 1100 users.

Opening with the news of Internet "hacktivist" Aaron Swartz's untimely death at the age of 26, "The Internet's Own Boy" traces the rise and fall of a tech industry prodigy. Interviews with his friends and loved ones paint a portrait of Swartz as a martyr of freedom of information and hail his fight for the public's right to access tax-funded academic and scientific research, culminating in a personally devastating two-year Federal lawsuit.

Having developed RSS technology at the age of fourteen Swartz was embraced by tech leaders at the top of their fields including Cory Doctorow and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig. Affable and baby-faced, Swartz was a frequent presenter at conferences and participated in academic pursuits at top-level universities throughout his teenage years. He established himself as a force to be reckoned with as co-founder of Reddit, one of the largest social media and news aggregator sites online to this day. Despite a profitable job offer at Conde Nast, Swartz rejected corporate culture in favor of pursuing a democratic Internet in the interest of information sharing over profit.

An avid researcher who had previously accessed otherwise private databases, Swartz, acting "in the grand tradition of civil disobedience to declare... opposition to this private theft of public culture" used MIT computers to access tax-funded research that would otherwise be held privately by for-profit publishers, an incident many viewers may remember from national headlines just a few year ago. Though neither MIT nor the digital repository Swartz accessed pressed charges, a US Attorney stepped in and filed a 13-count felony charge against Swartz, threatening him with over $1 million in fines and up to 35 years of jail time.

The case drew unwanted media attention to Swartz, skewing him as a hacker and pirate instead of a liberator of information and defender of civil liberties. The Swartz we meet through the film, however, is an admirable, kind-hearted young man adored by his friends, family and collaborators. Passionate about addressing societal problems and deeply influenced by World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, who chose to share the Web freely instead of for-profit, the film paints Swartz as a maligned activist, wrongly presented to the public as a criminal for his efforts to release a information to the general population.

Despite the defense of his peers, these events launched Swartz into a two-year long downward spiral of withdrawal and depression. The film highlights the impact technology has on society's access to information, the amount of control for-profit entities and the government dictate over this access, and ultimately questions whether Swartz's efforts proved him to be defeated or victorious at the end of his life, though his impact on the open access movement is undeniable either way.

Directed by: Brian Knappenberger

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91 Comments / User Reviews

  1. Lebon

    BAFFLED! SUCH A GENIUS! We do miss you young man. Thank to you.

  2. Sheila Kuna

    too bad he isnt around today to straighten out the current election hack

    1. Steve Jobs

      Or even more realistic, the Russian hack of 2016.

  3. Li cam

    Takes you’re breath away by the sadness and loss of such a bright young mind. If only there could have been another way. Knowing things I know now, not even 100% it was suicide. If only he knew how much he was supported. What could have been...

  4. Jenny

    Aaron Hillel Swartz - formerly named Charles Michael Frasier. Went to third grade with him in Baltimore, Maryland. Met him again at Whitman College in W(sub)3 Washington. Not sure who broke his teeth there. I think he fell into the keyboard... but the ROTC was around, if you know what I mean. :-/

    1. Sheila Kuna

      It is what is on the inside that counts, not what you see.

    2. Sheila Kuna

      Poor kid was under the impression that honesty should prevail.

  5. Jenny

    Loved him. Still do. <3

  6. Darren Cater

    I've never seen so many Jewish people in one documentary. This whole film reeks of Zionism.

    1. isabella

      your jealous because stupid dna n genes run in your family line.

  7. Fred Flintstone

    Your comment here. Be cool. Kinda like a contradiction, being as to the nature of the documentary. Say what you like, but he nice. THAT is exactly how we got to where we are !!! Rather speak my piece, than walk around a brain dead zombie.

  8. Fred Flintstone

    Best documentary I've ever watched! Shows clearly how a rich corrupt lying and deceiving government can twist and turn laws out of context to prose it's the innocent while the rich fat cats on board with corporations pay politicians to benefit them and and themselves! ABOMINATION! Go castrate yourself on the fence at 1600! We have the finest government that money can buy! F*ck your freedom! Act now or forever shut your mouth. NAZIS in government, who knew? God bless Aaron Swartz, and the idea he was chasing!

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      I know! Jesus Lord. And thank God we have Wikimedia.... and Reddit... and .... something like that. (dissolves into tears)

  9. yy

    really great documentary. that prosecutor should be punished for pressing such a useless case. just because you work for the "justice system" doesn't mean you're right. they have all committed a more serious crime then Aaron (not that he even committed a crime) by causing his death. I hope they get some sort of comeuppance somehow in their sorry lives. btw I will never pay for a damn journal article. I'll just look for another way. indeed knowledge should be shared and should not be used for profit. poor Aaron.

  10. JerryD

    Smart kid, could have made a big difference if he would have obeyed the law's rather than to steal and break laws so that he could oppose things he did not like. We must work within the law, change lawmakers, one by one, but me, I am a moderate to conservative, I am not a anarchist, he could have prevented his problems.

    1. isabella

      he was 14.
      the idiots
      this is why russia is hacking us, we jail our hackers instead of giving them jobs

    2. dolphin623

      So did anything he did deserve a death sentence?

  11. Colin

    Critical narratives are repeatedly obscured by soundtrack.

  12. DustUp

    Seems to me the govt is fond of disobeying The Constitution each one of them swears to uphold. Specifically "Equal treatment under the law" when they decide the cops are allowed to lie to you but not you to them.

    In other words anyone in govt should be put in jail for lying since that is what their police agencies aim to do to you if they catch you even mistakenly not remembering things correctly. Hold them to The Constitution they swear to uphold. That they use for toilet paper most days unless it is convenient to cite.

    Where are the retired lawyers who are tired of govt lying to them? Nowhere, since most of them made a living out of lying, just like the govt. How sad and sick is that.

  13. DustUp

    Unfortunately he didn't do his research into the law and legal system nor reach out to those who had overcame it or endured it or ran from it before it was too late. He may have discovered that Agents of the govt are allowed to lie to you but you are not allowed to lie to them. Seems It can be overwhelming when the govt and courts threaten you. Especially at a young age when you haven't seen much of it.

    It isn't brave when you take your own life, if that is what happened. It is chosen preference to escape from perceived or real suffering. It seems he felt nothing could be gained by that suffering. It is likely that he believed the govt agents and thought he would be behind bars for a longer time than his current age, which to a young person seems MUCH longer than to an older person which time seems to fly by faster the older you get.

    Wish someone would have been able to convince him to make a different choice. It seems Julian Assange made a good choice. Some who thought he was a rotten criminal have come around to be thankful.

    As far as those who talk about rising up or whatever. I'll believe it when I see it. How long has this docu been on here now? My direct experience is that the vast overwhelming majority of people are not only do nothings but refusal to do anything but which makes them money or takes away their "free time". Ironically, they would have more actual {free} time returned, if they invested a bit of it wisely.

  14. Jacqueline V.

    What ..An Incredible & Inspiring young man, Aaron Swartz Was & STILL IS !
    God Bless You for how much YOU have Personally done for Everyone. R.I.P.
    Thank you,
    Jacqueline V.

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      God bless you forever, Jacqueline V!

  15. Demockracy

    @Lana he “stole” tax funded research that should’ve been available to the public. The American people did not consent to this private theft of public culture.

    1. Michael Martin

      Well said . The court information is and was public knowledge, to sell that for profit is a breach of our constitutional rights. Checks and balances are no longer a tennant of our society.

  16. Antipodes

    Absolute goosebumps...Salute you Aaron, in the highest regard

  17. Darryl

    Started off at decent pace, but got bogged down with the minutiae and repetitiveness around his legal troubles, and ran way too long. I respect the strong feelings people have for him, but in my mind, and after enduring a very long documentary about him, I'm left feeling he has been overrated.

    1. Jenny

      True, Darryl. :-(

    2. Jenny Anonymous

      Dude couldn't take it anymore.

  18. MooBoo

    This is such an upside down world, we need people like him to enlighten us, literally bring us into the light. This is a brain drain of epic proportions! @Lana-Whatever

  19. Lana

    Very biased doc. The guy was caught on video breaking into a computer closet at MIT and stealing a hard drive, then creating code that thousands of documents from a paid subscription-only service. These weren't accidents, these were deliberate actions, and he didn't want to face the consequences after he got caught. He had no problem with theft and wire fraud--until he got caught.

    Heros are people who do brave actions without benefit to them, in spite of the risks, knowing very well they may face tough consequences, not rip off the hard work of other people and then act shocked when there is a punishment.

    1. Mary

      He didn't steal the hard drive; it was his hard drive that he left in his laptop on the closet floor. He also didn't steal the documents from JSTOR; he had access through MIT which pays for those subscriptions.

  20. Russell Beckham

    This story reminded me of Dr David Kelly who was driven to suicide because he did not think there was a case for war with Iraq. Wikipedia Dr David Kelly and the second paragraph is evidence enough how low these people in power will stoop.

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      Yes. Yes. Yes. Good sweet God... why?

  21. Cindy

    Wonderful documentary. So sad. A true hero.

  22. Marcella

    R.I.P Aaron Swartz, you was the best internet boy ever. It is a shame that you dyed so young, you could contribute a lot to the world with your ideas, to make a better world but unfortunately the real values are never appreciated enough in this unfair world.I am sure your name will remain over the time and the people will always remember you and your contribution to make a better world. It is a brilliant documentary, must to be seen by people and learn a lot from this.

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      YES. (weeping)

  23. Lucixir

    I don't know why this content is blocked for the US, considering it is about a US citizen and very recent events.

    I must say this has been one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Inspirational, informative and complete about someone very special who made so many changes that have affected everyone in the world and the technology we all use. It also demonstrates the abusive powers of our government and what they are allowed to do to destroy peoples lives without merit and abuse the system that no longer protects us.

    This person was one that had so much to offer the world and so much has been lost due to his passing, such a waste of potential because of the severe backlash the government put onto this young man. He decided he was becoming more of a burden and was expendable and didn't want to burden his loved ones and the people who supported him any longer and that suicide was his only option. Such a damn shame our government is allowed to trample over us and drive people to these limits and have no responsibility or repercussions for doing so because they are afraid to admit they are wrong and people within the system are more worried and concerned about their careers than peoples lives. They have no problems using and exploiting their government power over those without them to destroy them indirectly and unfairly, completely unjustified, and have no repercussions from their actions from doing so.

    We lost a brilliant and wonderful young man way before his time - the world lost one of the great ones among us and so much more was lost before his time. Many do not achieve a fraction of what this young man was able to do for us all in his short time.

    R.I.P. Aaron Swartz, I'm sorry you were pushed into believing this was your only option left and I hope the pain and struggle is gone for you. You will not be forgotten by the many lives you have touched and the history you have written to open up millions to what our government is not only capable of doing to us all but what they continue to do to us and we will change it and make a difference. We shall meet again one day, may eternal peace be yours until that time arrives.

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      Good God. So true.

  24. over9000comments

    this is blocked for me... is it online anywhere else?

    1. msueh

      watch on you-toob...

  25. Surendra p

    This is the best inspiring life story of a true "human being" who not only tried to make world a better place, but also inspired people like me, I always admire his sheer brilliance, simple life style and above all his integrity.
    It is a shame that we lost him.

    1. Jenny Anonymous


  26. nolackawanna

    Great doc on the life of Aaron Swartz, a brilliant mind who wanted to liberate the masses from the shackles of governmental/corporate control. That's what happens in this country: threaten the power of those in control, **** with their revenue stream, try to change the corrupt status quo and they will kill you, or at least, drive you to suicide. America is not a democracy.

    1. Chris Rothchild

      Democracy does not work... There has yet to be a true democracy that actually works, we are a business that offers more opportunities to those who educate themselves than any others.

  27. breggetta

    A true American patriot...

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      You said it, fellow Hacktivist breggetta.

  28. PTA mom

    What a brave man and shining star for this planet... if only half of us had his heart the world would be a much better place. Great movie.

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      Yes. Thanks for the amazing comment, PTA mom!

  29. henrymart81

    Our country needs to do more to help the mentally ill.

    1. caroline

      Your country needs to do less to make people ill!!

  30. andm369

    they got to the girlfriend.

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      Ummm... I agree. :-(

  31. Abu Bardewa

    By far.. the best documentary I have ever watched in my entire life.

    '' Aaron was the Nikola Tesla of our generation ''

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      Thank you.

  32. Shikaka

    I have to give this documentary my highest recommendation.

    If you don't know who Aaron Swartz was, today is a good day to find out, and this documentary is a good place to start. You won't regret it.

    1. Lauren

      Completely agree, what an appropriate comment.

    2. Surendra p

      Yes, I absolutely agree, if even 1% of this world had a heart like him we wouldn't be living like.....

  33. Rab

    What a kind, courageous young man an inspiration to many of us who have contributed to this comments page - yes governments can kill the body however they cannot kill the soul - let Aaron's courage be your courage fight the good fight - God bless you all.

  34. Wholethedogsout?

    And so...... if you meet an Aaron Swartz - who by the why has landed in hot water with the authorities, what did you do to stand by him? Lets make a pledge that you, yes you, out there who is an Aaron Swartz, we salute you. We will stand by you. Is there some "Nerd" out there that can start this web page for us to pledge support to all the Aaron's out there. Please?

  35. humansoul

    and i Dont believe for one moment he killed himself

  36. humansoul

    another brave intellectual some one that cared and sacrificed his live to try and bring truth to the world about these corrupt governments are we all just going to sit back?

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      (cry) absolutely true, humansoul.

  37. LujackLvr

    What a brilliant young man Aaron Swartz was. I feel that he was hugely misunderstood by the FBI and the government, used more as a target by the stated organizations than an intelligent human being who had the capacity to continue contributing to society in a meaningful way & was sadly denied that ability. I have seen the '60 Minutes' piece on Jack [blanking on his last name], the scientist who teaches college students & has an interest in curing pancreatic cancer, who said that he used the internet to study & further his findings. My heart aches for Aaron Swartz's family & friends. My condolences to his parents & brothers. Thank you for the beautiful video clip of Aaron as a child dancing & responding to his father at the end. Thank you for sharing this film.

  38. disqus_Wf91wKMTsJ

    What's with the incredibly irritating and distracting sound effects? They basically ruin a very informative doc.

  39. Roxanne

    This is one of the few that can actually make me cry. I will share this over and over! More people need to recognize and be aware of what is going on,

  40. Captain

    This cocktail of feelings. A mix of joy, admiration, sadness and anger. I'm not going to keep this cocktail in my veins and let it poison me. Those who deserves it shall taste the cocktail by my pure actions. They shall know that the universe has a court outside the rules of the distgusting system of law. Soon it will taste the wrath of my suffering funneled for the cause for, and of, good. You cannot kill what's inside of me, ideas are bulletproof, and the legacy of Aaron will forever me inscripted in me, and the world around. May you rest in peace - your impact is far greater than you think.

  41. Steven Fraser

    Notice how the only news agency to interview him and give him a platform to talk about controversial issues and fight for American freedoms was Russia Today (RT)? The big bad Russian propaganda machine according to the Western media.

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      I know, right???

  42. egged

    US government were really pissed off with WikiLeaks episodes and thus they made powerless and completely rational personality Aaron as a scapegoat. For the sake of their pride and ego, they indirectly took the life of one innocent and brilliant child.

    1. Steven Fraser

      I would say they directly took his life. They are responsible, if they didn't pursue bogus charges and try to destroy his life he would not have killed himself. I say mob justice for the prosecutors, beat them to death, and let's see if any of them have the balls to pull a stunt like this again.

  43. Thejas Jagannath

    Very sad but the documentary is well documented!

  44. Bruce Black

    A must see!

    If your interrest lies anywhere close or in between internet, social freemdom, privacy, politics, corrupted law enforcement and an overall genious called Aaron Swartz

    1. Jenny Anonymous

      I hear there's a new documentary on ANONYMOUS. I pre-rate it 2600GHz stars. Everybody raffle tickets.

      We are Anonymous. We are Legion. Hacktivists... <3 you.

      You too, Swartz, you bastard --- I mean, for offing yourself.

  45. Black Scholar

    He was MURDERED by the government. They kill all the bright minds and wonderful people with courage to affect CHANGE. The same way they shot down Plane MH17 today. 'Senior researchers, who were medical scientists, doctors, people
    who've been to the forefront of dealing with AIDS across the world.' Joep Lange led clinical trials involving antiretroviral therapies, and the
    prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. He was president of
    the International AIDS society from 2002-2004, and is a founder and
    co-editor-in-chief of the journal Antiviral Therapy. They too were MURDERED.

    Who are these psychopaths making these Corporate money grabbing decisions??

    1. Steven Fraser

      Regarding MH17, it's interesting that everyone is brandishing Russia Today as a propaganda tool and yet they were the only agency to give Aaron Swartz proper air time for issues like SOPA/PIPA and NSA spying.

  46. Joy

    So someone like Casey Anthony goes free but a guy like Aaron Swartz is threatened with decades of jail time?!?! WTF is wrong with the government? Makes me sick!

    1. Sid Barrett

      What in the world does a court case of a woman let free by a jury trial have to do with the govt? Letting her free? The govt was trying to convict her? I never say this, but you are ————. Thisbwas one of those comments that cries out about how un educated people are. Especially about the legal system. This isn’t even that easy. It’s bizarre! You have to have made a mistake in this comment. You need to fix it or remain a statistical problem associated with ignorance.

  47. InvisibleHandInMyPants

    In 21st century America, you do not f--k with commerce. Forget your history. Forget your culture. Just buy. Just buy.

  48. opinus

    Swartz confronts us with the urgency of making our voices heard.
    Isn't it that the people's silence has allowed the corporate hijacking of government and the justice system that seek to consume the true purporters of ethics and social justice - Swartz, Manning, Hammond, Kiriakou...?
    It's not difficult to identify the true criminality here.

  49. Miranda Brook Dawson

    That was so, incredibly insightful.

  50. whoopi_goldberg

    glorifying suicide is not ok.

    1. James Thomas

      Your quote is valid; however, placing it under this documentary which does no such thing is misleading and is not OK.

    2. steviecomment

      No, but when you have lost control of every thing around you
      it's the last bit of control you have. This is the mind set. And i also respect the great courage it takes.

    3. ollie_fin

      it's an act of desperation. a broken mindset. it's a permanent solution to a temporary problem. it isn't courageous. it's tragic. RIP Aaron. my condolences to his family and friends. i respect them for their strength and courage it took to partake in this film.

    4. steviecomment


      Not deterred by danger or pain; brave.

    5. Steven Fraser

      It wasn't suicide, it was murder. You can't have an entire government tell a 26 year old kid they are going to destroy their life and expect everything to be fine. They knew what they were doing. They probably celebrated with drinks once the news came through that he was dead.

  51. Michael Liew

    So sad to watch how greedy some people can be. I am sure that the DA was being pressured by some greedy ass corporation to make a point. RIP Aaron, we will miss your dearly and YOU HAVE made the world a better place.

  52. pwndecaf

    Really good doc. I felt as angry as the people telling the story, and I admit I knew only a small portion of the story. I doubt it was widely reported at the time, but Naked Capitalism had occasional stories on it, scolding MIT quite often. I am also a subscriber, at least, of Demand Progress, and signed petitions from them, certainly against SOPA and PIPA.

    What a tragic waste, especially given the comparison to the massive crime on Wall Street to the petty nuisance turned into 13 felonies against Aaron. And it continues. Wall Street firms continue to pay fines as a way of doing business with no one held responsible while we have to argue yet again for a neutral net. Don't be fooled by the FCC chairman's use of the words "open internet." It does not mean net neutrality. If you comment to the FCC on this or for holding public hearings, he disingenuously and dishonestly says this: "I'm a strong supporter of the Open Internet, and I will fight to keep the internet open. Thanks again for sharing your views with me.
    Tom Wheeler
    Federal Communications Commission"

    I almost feel like Aaron had confidence in the people to stand with him on those "important" issues, but didn't want to ask us to stand with him in court, and beyond. How I wish he had. Of course, those are just my feelings. Hard to say what his were. Such a loss.

  53. blondemama

    excellent doc. Swartz was a good person.He did what he did for the good of all, and that makes him a true hero in my book.

  54. dmxi

    this story went past me here in 'germermia',thanks for uploading!

    1. pwndecaf

      Germermia? Uber alles?