Brian Knappenberger on The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
img_internetsownboyBringing the galvanizing—and ultimately tragic—story of tech genius Aaron Swartz to the screen.

Aaron Swartz was one of the most brilliant thinkers in the development of the Internet in the last decade. His influence has been seen in a whole bunch of areas, such as assisting in the development of RSS, Reddit, and Creative Commons, along with leading the debate against the draconian SOPA (Stop Online Piracy) Bill in the United States. Swartz turned his back on start-ups and Silicon Valley, and his idealism towards the democratic power of the Internet led to tragic consequences. His attempt to free up academic research to the public led to an extreme government overreaction—he was facing up to 35 years in jail for “hacking” into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology system—leading to his suicide in 2013 at the age of only 26. Brian Knappenberger’s fascinating account of Swartz’s life shows a government and criminal justice system that is clueless (that’s a charitable interpretation) about the major technological changes taking place, with major implications surrounding not just the tragic circumstances of Swartz’s life, but on civil rights and democracies around the world.

*   *   *

BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film? What got you into film?

BRIAN KNAPPENBERGER: I started as a still photographer, then as a cinematographer, and also through journalism, so I come from that perspective. But I find film really captivating and really interesting, particularly documentary. It has this ability to show you a part of the world that is right in front of your face but you weren’t able to see.

BG: Where did your interest in technology and the changes it is creating in society come from?

BK: It’s one of the most interesting things happening right now. We’re currently living actively networked lives. All of our lives have an online component to them. The way we live right now is very different to way it is has been for most of human history. It’s a very new kind of experience. That online landscape is very insecure and changing and we don’t know what it’s all about yet. On the other hand, we have this traditional notion of ourselves in terms of civil liberties and civil rights and notions of privacy. We’re now in a moment where these two things are grinding like tectonic plates, and where the pressure is the greatest is where we’re trying to figure out these issues, like hackers, and civil rights, and all that. It’s a really interesting place to be.

BG: Has the speed of these technological advances perhaps contributed to people’s confusion, especially the older lawmakers, as is quite obvious in The Internet’s Own Boy?

BK: Yeah, there’s a point in the film during the SOPA debate where members of Congress are saying, “We need to bring in the nerds to make sense of what all this means.” “I don’t understand this because I’m not a nerd.” And John Stewart basically cuts in after the montage and says, “I think the word you’re looking for is expert.” There is a cluelessness about technology, and education in Congress was closed in the ’90s even though it only cost $20 million for science and technology education. There is a sense that every part of your lives involves technology and the Internet. It’s not some distant realm of geeks and hackers. It’s you and me and everybody we know. It’s where we find love, where we find work, almost everything about our connection to the modern world. It’s really not okay for lawmakers not to understand the Internet. We’re past the point for members of Congress not to understand the basic thing they’re legislating.

BG: From the moment Aaron Swartz is a toddler, he’s surrounded by computers. For him, that’s all he knows.

BK: Yeah exactly. So you can see this disconnect. The title of the film, The Internet’s Own Boy, in some ways is embraced by this world, by these people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, people who are much older than him. This online community which he understands very, very well. And then running afoul of these laws that haven’t really changed in any meaningful way since the ’80s, and Congress and a system, which is very much stuck in the past. Quinn Norton [journalist and Swartz’s ex-girlfriend] says in the film, that’s where I took the title from, “He was the internet’s own boy and the old world killed him.”

BG: It’s a great quote and obviously the central crux of the film. Was that apparent from the start for you?

BK: It was, and it became more clear as we made the film. There’s obviously a disconnect between the kinds of things Aaron was after. I mean, Aaron was after political organising, grassroots organising, he was very much about getting people involved in politics and getting people to step up and participate in the political world in a democratic way, and he was very much interested in working within the system. This is the kind of guy we want. The kind of behaviour we want to encourage. Yet, he’s so far ahead of the game that he was threatening to the established “participatory democracy” that people imagined themselves to be in. There’s a real disconnect there, and he was caught in that.

BG: When did you first become aware of Aaron Swartz?

BK: I became aware of him when he was first arrested. I remember that day very well. That became a two year legal nightmare for him, and I remember thinking at the time not many people are following that story. Certainly he didn’t get as much attention as other hacker stories. I didn’t realise why I wasn’t hearing about this case. Even his lawyers said there was one reporter from the Harvard newspaper at his hearing. And the reason why I realised during making the film: he was actively trying to keep it quiet, he wasn’t trying to incriminate his friends, he was suffering at the hands of this prosecutor who was looking for any kind of vulnerability, including something he may have said to someone close to him that would have been useful to them. That was the first time I heard of him, but it was really after he died, when there was this wave of anger and frustration, that I started this film.

BG: Had you appreciated what he had done before you delved into this film?

BK: Yeah, I knew the basics, I knew who he was. He was sort of a quasi-celebrity in the tech world but beyond the tech world, nobody really knew him. I knew the basics and I knew people who knew him. It was surprising to get into the depths of what he had done and accomplished in his short life.

BG: How much of an outlier was he in the tech industry? He seemed to have no interest in money and not to care about selling off start-ups. Did that alienate him from the popular narratives of the tech boom?

BK: I think that he certainly rejected that world. He thought Silicon Valley was a money machine and a long way from the political ideals that he was interested in. There’s the mantra of trying to make the world a better place, which has become this Silicon Valley cliché, and Aaron asked: what part of the world do you think is bad, how do you think it’s bad, how are you going to target some action that’s going to correct that problem, and how do you measure the effect your action has had on the problem so you can tweak for the next issue? That’s the level of intellectual curiosity that is required from the Silicon Valley cliché. I don’t know if he was an outlier from them. I think he was respected in that world, but he was turning his back on it, no question.

BG: You described a turning point in that process was talking to Swartz’s father. Is that something that can get a bit lost in these big media stories, the personal tragedy that results?

BK: Yeah, it was really was. Talking to his father was such a moving experience for me. I think it was also from part of my personal life: I had lost a friend to suicide four months before Aaron and I had also become a new father myself in that time, and you’re a different person when that happens to you. That’s the mind-set I had when I was talking to Aaron’s Dad about it, and just talking to him really hit me that he lost his son and in a way I’m not sure would have hit me five, six years ago. I was already fired up about the political stuff Aaron was fighting for and I was looking at carrying that part of the story. The personal part, there was an emotional personal undercurrent that pulled me in and that was that.

BG: The Tim Benners-Lee [the founder of the World Wide Web] poem about Swartz captures that loss: Swartz had obviously achieved a lot but he was so young and had so much potential.

BK: Absolutely.

BG: It does seem to be a battle between the old models of copyright and new media, and it’s interesting in New Zealand we had a very similar debate around that time. Our lawmakers had no idea about concepts such as net neutrality or creative commons and they passed through legislation with barely any knowledge. Is this a problem the world over?

BK: I think it is a problem the world over. We’re all trying to struggle with it. Countries are doing it in different ways. Some are more liberal, some more conservative. We’re seeing an interesting example in the TPP debate, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We don’t know that much about it, basically what we know comes from Wikileaks. Other than that, there’s no transparency around it. That by itself is a problem. There does some to be some element in the TPP that’s looping everybody into the same definition of copyright that’s a little more draconian than other countries are interested in implementing themselves. It’s certainly a global world. The Internet has no boundaries and that’s something that has to involve everybody in the world. It plays into the hands of Aaron. He was certainly angry about the collective walling up of research, of academic research, and was upset that developing countries don’t have access to research that institutions inside the United States had. There’s a sense of the borders keeping people out and hurting us collectively as a species. This is research lots of smart people all over the world could use and build on the shoulders of to help. That international element really played into him.

BG: And as we see from Edward Snowden, we can’t really trust the people who are walling up this information anyway.

BK: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a lot happening online that we just didn’t know was happening. When the internet first exploded on the public in the ’90s and certainly in the early 2000s, there was this sense that it’s going to do lots of great things. It was going to change and bring information to people. It was going to open up lines of communications between people all over the world. It was going to make governments more transparent and help people protest against oppressive regimes. To some degree it has happened. That has existed and people have used the Internet for a lot of great things. But people that are in love with that power of the Internet are particularly disturbed by the revelations and the growing awareness of its dark side. The awareness that it can be used by oppressive regimes to go after people and used by corporations basically to extract your private information and sell it for pennies. That the structure itself can be altered. The net neutrality debate and the speed might be played with. There’s this incredible control over people and they don’t quite realise it. There are all kinds of awful uses of the Internet; there are the Snowden revelations  recently, about how GCHQ has been using it. Things like astroturfing, fake grassroots. There’s a real solid dark side to the Internet, and that’s the moment we’re in now. It’s not like we’ve given up that promise, but really the dark side is much more clear. I think that presents us with a battle to decide what kind of net we want.

BG: There is also this institutional silence about the way Swartz was treated and the criminal charges. How difficult did that make the process for you?

BK: I wish the government had talked to me more about it. I wished they had talked to me at all. I wish they would talk to anybody at this point in time, so we can figure out what the hell is going on here. Obviously this was a bad use of prosecutorial discretion. Obviously this was terrible. During this two year nightmare that Aaron was going through, the government was throwing all of this attention at this one kid—meanwhile, there was actual real crime going on. Real things being stolen, actual money being stolen, secrets, all sorts of things. And by the way, this entire financial meltdown. None of those people saw the inside of a courtroom in any kind of significant way. Why is this kid so important to put the full resources of federal government behind? It didn’t make sense. Yeah, it’s difficult. I wish they had come clean. I wish they would have come clean to me, and I wish they would still come clean.

BG: I know Swartz’s enemies, even though not in this case, include the mass media and film industries who still have a vested interest in copyright being maintained in the way that it is.

BK: Aaron was certainly a kind of warrior in the efforts to change copyright. He wasn’t as extreme a warrior in that battle as some people are. In my previous film We Are Legion (2012) [about Anonymous] you couldn’t find people more extreme than them. [Swartz] is one of the architects of Creative Commons. Creative Commons is in some ways a very reasonable approach. It’s radical because it’s new. I don’t necessarily think it’s perfect. With this film we’re experimenting with it. There’s a lot to be worked out still. It’s a very reasonable approach, it’s thinking through this notion you can take a non-commercial share-alike attribution, you can pick these sort of things depending on what freedom you want your work to carry. Maybe he was disruptive, sure, but there are plenty of people who are way more disruptive in that space.

BG: Given how dramatic his story is, how did you decide the way you were going to film, e.g. in terms of talking heads?

BK: I knew I wanted to talk to people who were close to him, the closest that I could find in each chapter of his life. Since he had died before the making of this film, that put us in this position of the only way we could have his voice was to put in as much archival footage as possible. So that was a big deal. That dictated the move forward. I wanted to talk and have conversations with people about Aaron, to tell us the story of what happened and hear from them as much as we could.

BG: Have you been surprised by the reaction? It has been quite thunderous.

BK: We’ve had a huge reaction to the film. People have really responded to this story, and really responded to our telling of the story.

BG: What’s your plan with the film now that is has been at Sundance?

BK: It has been in theatres in the United States, it’s opening in theatres in New Zealand soon, and we’re going to keep getting the word out. It’s on Video on Demand in Creative Commons, and it’s definitely making its way into the world in this moment of time.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (Brian Knappenberger, USA)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other