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‘The Internet’s Own Boy’: Doc on Internet hero Aaron Swartz deserves Oscar nod

Facing felony charges thcould have put him federal prisAarSwartz hanged himself age 26. A new documentary tells Swartz's story. |

Facing felony charges that could have put him in federal prison, Aaron Swartz hanged himself at age 26. A new documentary tells Swartz's story. | Noah Berger

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Filmbuff and Participant Media present a documentary directed by Brian Knappenberger. Running time: 105 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center and on demand.

Updated: July 28, 2014 6:12AM

Now comes along a documentary as gripping as any fictional film I’ve seen this year.

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” deserves an Oscar nomination for best documentary. It’s an important film about the short and amazing life of one of the Internet’s superheroes, and the battle for information access.

Whether you’re a hardcore techie or you just take delight in all the nifty things your laptop and your tablet and your smartphone can do even though it seems like magic to you, this is a don’t-miss viewing experience. Brian Knappenberger’s film celebrates the astonishing accomplishments and unique personality of Swartz, who comes across as off-the-charts smart, charming, eccentric and, as one might expect from such a prodigy, socially inept on a regular basis.

He’s also a figure of great tragedy. We lost this great mind at the age of 26 last year when Swartz hanged himself.

The film lays out in accessible fashion the government’s dubious and borderline unconscionable pursuit of Swartz, with prosecutors going after him with a zeal that would almost be comical if it weren’t so infuriating. To be sure, the film is sympathetic to Swartz — his brothers, mentors and colleagues speak passionately about the FBI’s surveillance of Aaron and the government’s charges against him — but then again, it’s difficult to fathom anyone making a plausible argument defending the government’s side of the story.

But first there’s the story of the boy genius.

In family video footage shot at his childhood home in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, little Aaron Swartz is holding up a plastic grid of the alphabet. Aaron starts singing the “A-B-C-D-E-F-G” song — starting with Z and working his way back.

He’s maybe 3 years old at the time.

Years before Wikipedia was created, a teenage Swartz was working from a computer in his bedroom when he created a site for information sharing. At 14, Swartz co-wrote the specification for RSS — first known as Rich Site Summary, now Really Simple Syndication. He would go on to co-found Reddit.

The term “genius” gets tossed around in reference to everyone from pop singers to point guards to people who create nifty apps, but Swartz had the kind of mind that even those with genius-level IQs admired. When Swartz committed suicide, there was a true world wide web of mourning.

“Aaron Swartz helped created the Internet,” read the obituary on after it was reported Swartz had hanged himself. “If you subscribe to a podcast — or receive automatic updates from — you have Swartz to thank.”

In Knappenberger’s mesmerizing, engrossing and heartbreaking documentary, we marvel at those home videos showing a precocious boy convincing his brother to dress up as a Mac computer for Halloween, we’re blown away by the adolescent wowing techies three times his age at conferences — and we’re left dumbfounded by the government’s persecution of Swartz.

Unlike a Bradley Manning or a Julian Assange, Swartz wasn’t interested in leaking sensitive documents. Nor was he interested in making a fortune for himself. In 2009 he began the Progressive Change Campaign as a way to facilitate online activism. He was staunch free-speech purist, and he was at the forefront of the protest against SOPA, the anti-piracy bill with more downside than potential for justice.

But what first drew the attention of the feds was Swartz infiltrating the MIT campus and downloading academic journals maintained by JSTOR (for “Journal Storage”) by the millions — nearly 5 million in all. As the film acknowledges, nobody knew for sure what Swartz intended to do with the journals, but there’s nothing to indicate he was hacking to harm any entity or to sell information for a profit.

Nevertheless, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts charged Swartz with two counts of wire fraud and violations of the outmoded Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, with possible penalties of $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison. Eventually those charges mushroomed to 13 felony indictments that carried a possible total of 50 years in federal prison.

“The Internet’s Own Boy” leaves one wondering how Aaron Swartz could be targeted like a violent felon or a Madoff-esque swindler for downloading journals from a database, while nobody had to pay the price for the financial fraud of 2008 that ruined millions of American lives.

This is a film that left me marveling at Swartz’s beautiful mind, and shaking my head at the insanity of the system he knew was badly fractured.

Swartz’s parents, Robert and Susan Swartz, are scheduled to appear for a Q&A following the 3 p.m. Sunday screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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