The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz begins with a quote from Thoreau that asks how citizens should react to unjust laws. The philosopher of Walden Pond asks whether we should simply obey them or try to change them, obeying them in the meantime.

Or, he concludes, “shall we transgress them at once?”

Thoreau makes it clear that he favors the latter approach, and the same could be said for the subject of Brian Knappenberger’s documentary, Aaron Swartz.

Before his suicide last year at the age of 26, Swartz was known as one of the computer age’s brightest whiz kids. His many accomplishments included playing central roles in the founding of Reddit, an online news site, and Creative Commons, an alternative to restrictive copyright laws.

Since his death, Swartz has been considered a martyr in the fight against those who seek to compromise Internet access for the sake of profit.

A masterful combination of archival footage and talking-head interviews, The Internet’s Own Boy begins its biographical portrait when Swartz actually was a boy. Growing up in suburban Chicago, he astounded his parents by reading a news clipping at the age of 3. And he was only 12 when he launched an informational website that functioned like an early version of Wikipedia.

Watching young Aaron grow up, we get the feeling that he was brilliant and maybe a bit condescending toward those who didn’t share his mental gifts—which is to say, just about everyone else.

Later on, Knappenberger dives into the controversy that got Swartz in trouble. He was caught illegally downloading academic articles at MIT, though just what he intended to do with them was an open question. Swartz subsequently was hit with a growing list of charges by a prosecutor who seemed eager to send a message to those who ignored the sometimes draconian laws governing the virtual world.

The impending court case had a devastating impact on Swartz and his family and loved ones, as the documentary reveals. Nevertheless, the activist still jumped headfirst into the fight against an impending law that promised to be even more restrictive, the ill-conceived Stop Online Piracy Act.

Beautifully photographed by Knappenberger and others, and dramatically scored by John Dragonetti, The Internet’s Own Boy is a clearly partisan work that paints its subject as both heroic and eccentrically human. After seeing it, even if you don’t agree with everything Swartz did, you’ll more than likely join his worldwide army of mourners.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)


The Internet’s Own Boy (unrated) opens Friday (June 27) at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.