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March 15, 2015

DVDFilm + EntertainmentReview | by Francesco Cerniglia

Photo 01_Aaron_Swartz

If the fight for freedom of information or “hacktivism” has never been something that’s boiled your blood or raised your curiosity, then you might feel very differently after watching the moving documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy.

Director Brian Knappenberger of We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists (2012), captures this true-story sensitively and with a touch of brilliance. With enlightening interviews providing the commentary, it’s a captivating account of the life of Aaron Swartz, a hacker who left a mark on the computer programming community, internet activism and social justice movements, before he killed himself in 2013.

Swartz was respected in his field for having helped develop RSS (the software that allows users to create personalised web feeds) and for creating The Python web framework for Reddit (the social networking and news sharing website.)

He used his incredible intellect to challenge what he believed to be unjust laws surrounding information accessibility. Acting zealously in order to make a statement, he challenged the government to such an extent that it ultimately cost him his life.

While WikiLeaks and the Anonymous group were at the top of international governments’ priority lists, Swartz’s 35-year sentence for attempted data hacking was disproportionate to his crime. Many believe the authorities set out to make an example of him.

Knappenberger sets a compassionate tone early in the film, showing us a Swartz family home video where we meet Aaron as a toddler, wearing a ‘Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles’ t-shirt introducing us to his Paddington Bear book. It’s a heart-warming opening, which immediately endears us towards this bright and blameless three-year-old boy.

By drawing our attention to a quote by American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, we are made to keep a question at the front of our minds while we watch and evaluate: “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?”

Not-too-subtly, we are encouraged to empathise with the convicted Swartz and support the protest movements he championed.

The X-Files-esque score provides sufficient suspenseful vibes throughout and Quinn Norton, (a journalist at Wired Magazine) shares with us the theme song that Aaron felt summed up his world at the time, ‘Extraordinary Machine’ by Fiona Apple which gives a sense of how he may have experienced his frustrations and manifested them through his actions.

Photo 06_Aaron Swartz

Swartz’s case had a huge media impact. Perhaps, at the time, you made up your mind on his actions and felt he crossed the line of acceptability without sufficient justification. To some extent, you would be right in this opinion. But the documentary gives fresh insights to his motives and vision.

It’s challenging and jarring and well worth a watch, if you’re the kind of person who likes to contemplate where you stand on issues like digital democracy and the rights we should or shouldn’t have in freely accessing public data that can enrich our knowledge and educate us.

Ask yourself if there is anything in your own life that feels stifled by the rules and restrictions that your government has put in place. How does that make you feel and to what lengths would you go to change the status quo?

If this documentary could be evaluated in just one word, it would be ‘injustice’. Although it’s a one-sided account of his story with little to no account from the apposing side, it’s a determined piece that motivates you to think about your rights and fight for them, just as Aaron did.

The Internet’s Own Boy is available on Digital Download and DVD from March 16th

Lisa Coleman